President Joe Biden said during his State of the Union address Tuesday that the climate crisis is an "existential threat" and political leaders have an obligation to confront it.
Seconds later, the president briefly deviated from his prepared remarks to add, "We're still going to need oil and gas for a while"—prompting applause from Republican lawmakers.
To climate advocates, Biden's comments underscored the tension between the president's exhortations to treat climate change like the emergency it is and his continued approval of fossil fuel drilling projects that will spew millions upon millions of tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, making it more difficult to meet critical emission-reduction targets.
Biden noted accurately in his speech that the Inflation Reduction Act, which became law last year, is "the most significant investment" in the nation's history to combat the climate crisis, which is fueling increasingly extreme weather events that displaced more than 3 million adults across the U.S. in 2022—and tens of millions more globally.
But environmentalists said there's much more the president can do, unilaterally, to bring rising U.S. emissions into line with the administration's pledges and phase out fossil fuel production that is driving habitat destruction, species extinction, sea level rise, and other catastrophic outcomes.
"There is no denying that President Biden has made important strides to invest in renewable energy through the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act," said Jeff Ordower, 350.org's North America director. "However, we are not truly living up to real climate solutions if Biden continues to rely on the fossil fuel industry and allow them to pump more oil and gas."
"Biden casually suggested that the U.S. will 'need oil for at least a decade or longer'—this is unacceptable," Ordower added.
"When it comes to fossil fuel development on our public lands, President Biden must match his words with actions."
The State of the Union address came just a week after the Biden administration took a key step toward approving a massive ConocoPhillips drilling project on Alaska's North Slope. Even under the scaled-back version that the Bureau of Land Management has suggested, the Willow Project would emit an estimated 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Ordower noted that, if granted final approval by the Interior Department, Willow "would be the largest oil and gas development on federal land."
"As long as the United States continues to green light fossil fuel projects like the ConocoPhillips Willow Project," he argued, "the U.S. will not be able to bring down emissions or meet its targets. President Biden needs to stop approving fossil fuel infrastructure projects, end fossil fuel production on public lands and waters, and declare a climate emergency to truly protect frontline and BIPOC communities and live up to his promises."
More than two years into his presidency, Biden has badly failed to meet his campaign pledge to end new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters. According to one recent study, the Biden administration approved more fossil fuel drilling permits during its first two years than its openly industry-friendly predecessor.
Last month, more than 300 climate organizations outlined nine steps Biden can take without congressional approval to rein in climate-wrecking fossil fuel production, including halting "new exploration, development, and drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska."
Abigail Dillen, the president of Earthjustice, said in a statement Tuesday night that "when it comes to fossil fuel development on our public lands, President Biden must match his words with actions, which means saying no to greenlighting projects like Willow in the Western Arctic, which will harm fragile ecosystems already harmed by climate change, emit hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, and further line the pockets of oil and gas companies who continue to rake in record profits."
Dillen went on to lament that "too many devastating Trump rules remain on the books." E&E Newsreported last month that "among the big-ticket environmental policy reversals the Biden team hasn't yet completed are regulations surrounding how government agencies consider the environmental impacts of their decisions, endangered species protections, and limits on power plants' emissions of greenhouse gases and air toxics."
"We need the Biden administration to finalize strong rules to hold polluting industries accountable and protect communities from pollution," Dillen said.
Varshini Prakash, executive director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said late Tuesday that while "we've heard a lot of good things" from Biden, "he must act on his words, use his full executive authority to stop the climate crisis, and deliver for our generation."