Biden Approved an Alaska Oil Project: Why You Should Chill Out and Keep Working on the Transition

March 14, 2023

A whole lot of outrage being expressed on social media about a newly approved Arctic drilling site. Everyone needs to chill.

No, it’s not a betrayal, it’s a tough choice among limited options.
Key in this case is to continue working to lower demand for fossil fuels, and make this a bad investment and a stranded asset for Big Oil.

I’m reminded of the heat the Obama Admin took when it approved Shell oil drilling in the offshore arctic – a decision I thought was actually wise and well advised.

My information at the time, from folks like the late U of Manitoba’s David Barber, was that, contrary to the CW that drilling in the arctic was supposedly getting easier – in fact, the break up of reliably frozen areas in the arctic ocean was actually making things dicier, more difficult and unpredictable in the area. I suspect that Obama was getting this advice as well.

The outcome was that an expensive, high tech Shell drilling rig, after dodging and fleeing from massive icebergs for weeks, ended up aground on a remote island, and Shell abandoned 7 billion in arctic investments as oil prices could not support the continued effort.

The takeaway – keep working to further the energy transition, stay behind the administration, and suck it up.

New York Times:

As a candidate, Joseph R. Biden promised voters worried about the warming planet “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.” On Monday, President Biden approved an enormous $8 billion plan to extract 600 million barrels of oil from pristine federal land in Alaska.

The distance between Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge and his blessing on that plan, known as the Willow project, is explained by a global energy crisis, intense pressure from Alaska lawmakers (including the state’s lone Democratic House member), a looming election year and a complicated legal landscape that government lawyers said left few choices for Mr. Biden.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and one of the chief advocates for Willow, which is projected to generate 2,500 jobs and millions in revenue for her state, said the president was inclined to oppose it and “needed to really be brought around.”

Mr. Biden was acutely aware of his campaign pledge, according to multiple administration officials involved in discussions over the past several weeks. Environmental activists had also openly warned that Mr. Biden’s climate record, which includes making landmark investments in clean energy, would be undermined if he approved Willow, and that young voters in particular could turn against him.

Approval of the Willow project marks a turning point in the administration’s approach to fossil fuel development. Until this point, the courts and Congress have forced Mr. Biden to sign off on some limited oil and gas leases. Willow would be one of the few oil projects that Mr. Biden has approved freely, without a court order or a congressional mandate.

And it comes as the International Energy Agency has said that governments must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects if the planet is to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Ultimately, the administration made the internal calculation that it did not want to fight ConocoPhillips, the company behind the Willow project.

ConocoPhillips has held leases to the prospective drilling site for more than two decades, and administration attorneys argued that refusing a permit would trigger a lawsuit that could cost the government as much as $5 billion, according to administration officials who asked not to be identified in order to discuss legal strategy.

“The lease does not give Conoco the right to do whatever they want, but it does convey certain rights,” said John Leshy, who served as the Interior Department’s solicitor under President Bill Clinton. “So the administration has to take that into account. I would not say their hands were tied, but their options were limited by the lease rights.”

The leases are essentially a contract and if the Biden administration denied the permits, essentially breached the contract, without what a court considered a valid argument, a judge would likely find in favor of the company, Mr. Leshy said. It would be unusual for a court to simply order the government to issue permits; more likely a judge would award damages, he said.

That figure could include not just compensation for investments ConocoPhillips has already made but also profits that the company could have gotten if it had been allowed to drill, Mr. Leshy said, putting a potential judgment into the billions of dollars.

Ms. Murkowski said she believed the legal argument was the turning point for Mr. Biden. “There was no way around the fact that these were valid existing lease rights,” she said. “The administration was going to have to deal with that reality.”

To try to minimize the fallout, the Biden administration demanded concessions. It slashed the size of the project from five drilling sites to three. ConocoPhillips agreed to return to the government leases covering about 68,000 acres in the drilling area, which lies within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. And the administration said it would put in place new protections for a nearby coastal wetland known as Teshekpuk Lake. Those measures would effectively form a “firewall” that would prevent the Willow project from expanding, the administration said.

Mr. Biden also intends to designate about 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean near shore in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as off limits for future oil and gas leasing. And the Interior Department plans to issue new rules to block oil and gas leases on more than 13 million of the 23 million acres that form the petroleum reserve.

But several of those measures could be revoked by a future administration, and none of them seemed to appease environmental groups, which termed the project a “carbon bomb.”

“The announcement is nothing more than window dressing,” Ben Jealous, president of the Sierra Club, said in an interview. “If President Biden were sitting here I’d tell him don’t spit on us and tell us that it’s raining, Mr. President.”

He called the Willow approval “a major breach of trust” and warned that with it, Mr. Biden has alienated many of his supporters, particularly young voters.

President Biden’s decision to move forward with the Willow Project abandons the millions of young people who overwhelmingly came together to demand he stop the project and protect our futures,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate change advocacy group.

Earthjustice, an environmental group, said it would sue to stop the project as soon as Wednesday and expects to be joined by several other organizations. Environmental groups argued that the administration had the legal authority to deny ConocoPhillips a permit and should have done so based on a federal environmental review that found “substantial concerns” about the project’s impact on the climate, the danger it poses to freshwater sources and the way it threatens migratory birds, caribou, whales and other animals that inhabit the region.

The Willow project would be constructed on the nation’s largest swath of undeveloped land, about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Some analysts said Mr. Biden’s decision could ultimately help him with moderates and independents, given elevated gas prices amid an energy crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Republican attacks that Democratic climate policies are jeopardizing American energy independence.

“I think the White House feels the president has strong climate credentials now, but that he does need to reach out to working class voters in swing states who care about gasoline prices,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate aide in the Clinton administration who now works at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank.

But Mr. Bledsoe said he also thought the administration needed to make a stronger case publicly that the Willow project will not make a large contribution to the climate crisis.

“The problem with climate is not supply, it’s demand,” he said. “The world is awash in oil and other countries will supply the oil if we don’t. The question is, can we reduce demand through substitute technologies? And that’s where the administration has been very strong.”

The burning of oil produced by the Willow project would cause 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to a federal analysis. On an annual basis, that would translate into 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year. The United States, the second-biggest polluter on the planet after China, emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

A key factor was the widespread support Willow enjoyed from lawmakers of both parties, including Mary Peltola, a Democrat and the state’s first Alaska Native elected to Congress; labor unions; and most Indigenous groups in Alaska.


NBC News:

A source familiar with the decision said that the Biden administration had little choice, faced with the prospect of legal action and costly fines. Administration lawyers determined that the courts would not have allowed Biden to reject the project outright, as ConocoPhillips has long held leases on land in the petroleum reserve and could have levied fines on the government, the source added.


11 Responses to “Biden Approved an Alaska Oil Project: Why You Should Chill Out and Keep Working on the Transition”

  1. jimbills Says:

    More than a bit apologist.

    Here’s the thing, as a voter who sides with reducing or eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, including permits, every election cycle I basically have to eat dung and vote for a person I know isn’t going to represent what I want, simply because I know the other guy is far worse.

    But what I don’t have to do is like it. We’re sleepwalking our way into oblivion, and moves like this don’t help.

    It also doesn’t help when you read articles like this a few days ago:

    White House denies reports Biden has decided to sign off on controversial Alaska oil project

    The move highlights why liberals get derned ticked off at moderates. We always have to vote for them, we get called all sorts of names if we don’t, and we feel completely impotent because of it. It’s more than a bit enraging.

    Moderates Democrats repeatedly assume they have the support of certain groups, but moves like this have a tendency to bite back when the time comes. I don’t consider myself an unreasonable person who lets my emotions rule my decisions, but there are plenty of voters who are and would.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I would put this in the category of Lincoln suspending Habeus Corpus during the civil war. It wasn’t because he was a fascist or didn’t believe in the Constitution, in fact, just the opposite.
      or, perhaps another comparison – as in Game of Thrones where all the protagonists who had been killing each other for 7 years took a good look at the Army of the Dead, and realized they had to drop some of their differences and take a look at the existential threat.
      We are in an emergency of similar if not greater magnitude. Don’t take it personally, let’s all just just keep working. I think people like AOC get this, and have done a pretty good job sticking together. We can’t play into the bullshit and go into circular firing squad protocol. This is too important.
      In recent decades, clean energy technology has always over performed expectations – it is poised to do so again, but only if we keep political control of the process, or at least most of it.
      I believe there is a very good chance that investments in fossil fuels going forward will result in massive stranded assets, which is too bad, counterproductive, but seems just inevitable given the strength of denial still out there.
      We can help make that happen, but only by maintaining unity.

      • jimbills Says:

        “We are in an emergency of similar if not greater magnitude.”

        But, we sure don’t act like it. I’ll give Biden credit for doing more about climate change than any other President, but that’s a low, low, low, low bar, and Biden hasn’t done anything even remotely close to suspending Habeus Corpus.

        On this, what was the risk? A court loss? Lose some money? Freaking take it. Moves like this are as devastating as symbols as they are in practical effect (“equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year”), because we signal to other countries that we care more about ourselves making money than we care about reducing the effects of climate change. How will they respond?

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          I’m willing to accept that it might be an appropriate political calculation, where there are so many battles that matter.

          My first thought when hearing about the approval was in fact about unpredicatable sea ice and thawing permafrost changing the cost calculation for the oil&gas companies. The bigger battle is choking off investment funding of new projects, and I see promise in the fact that more of the industry is shifting money to shareholder dividends rather than new investment.

          [Check back with me in an hour or so when I might be screaming into my pillow about this cession.]

      • J4Zonian Says:

        Roughly a third of voters are inextricably chained to the most right wing, fascist party this country has ever known. (I’ve known this on an increasingly pervasive level for many years, but the moment I finally completely admitted it to myself was when they put brown children in cages. It’s the kind of thing TV serial killers do. It was equivalent to things the Nazis didn’t do until years later in their power grab.

        The Republicans are more evil than the Nazis were at the same stage in their takeover.

        And using the control of media & government that comes with money, and the ability that money gives them to blatantly lie about anything & everything without any meaningful pushback, they prevent any significant resistance to their continued concentration of power & money.

        A third are so apoplectic—so angry & disgusted with a system that gives the sizable (60-80%) progressive majority nothing but shadows of crumbs at the best of times—that year after year after decade they never vote, allowing war, torture, ecological destruction, destruction of democracy & other horrors to be perpetrated in their names. Since they’re the most progressive third, their withdrawal suits the oligarchic duopoly in power perfectly, & no serious attempt is made by either party to re-engage them.

        The other third have no choice because in the US, in the face of relentless disinformation—& exclusion & scapegoating if they step out of line—they have no voice except a faint echo of the insane ones. Despite having the pivotal power, election after election they vote for ever-worse candidates who merely promise to kill democracy & the world slightly slower. If we unify under the banner of the third third, we guarantee fascism & destruction. The unity we need is with those in the disengaged group—poorest, most progressive, most angry, hardest to reach. The way to reach them (& a good number of anti-corporate conservatives) is with a peaceful, progressive revolution with relentless agitation for universal health care, universal basic income, free education, climate action, rights to clean air, pure water, healthy food, & to & for nature…

    • redskylite Says:

      “sleepwalking our way into oblivion”

      I agree that’s what we are doing and the complex party politics just makes matters worse. I have been eagerly reading every snippet of climate news available for well over 10 years now, very little has changed – except weather extremes and melts get even more extreme, talk of experimental and extreme Geoengineering gets louder. Meanwhile governments keep on with new fossil extraction programs. And even worse the major powers are further apart than ever. I’m not a doomer (yet) – but it’s difficult to see any hope at the moment. I still hope to see a reduction in actual carbon emission reduction measured scientifically by the Keeling team, in my remaining lifetime, but realistically I very much doubt it.

  2. Ron Benenati Says:

    I do appreciate your reporting work and you are my first go to source for climate-related news.
    I am not without my own experience with the subject, have had some success in the long hard fight to reach elusive sane policy starting back in the mid 1980s.
    The sit back and chill doesn’t cut it for me. As you post about regularly, the agents of fossil greed undermine, protest, complain and distort and every opportunity with devastating success. I cheer those who let their dissatisfaction with the status quo be know at whatever level who do with honest motives and fact-based outrage.
    Obama used to say the reason things didn’t happen during his administration is because those concerned “didn’t make him do it.” Followed later with a diplomatic ‘shut up and behave.” The fact is there is good reason to believe that waiting for power to do the right thing has not paid social dividends…only corporate ones.

  3. Peter Joseph Says:

    The most effective response to this absurd act is to work ever harder at reducing demand. The oil companies wouldn’t be going to this much trouble if facing a predictably rising carbon tax. While it failed to make it into the IRA, Sen. Whitehouse claims he had 49 votes for a carbon tax. As the benefits of the IRA come into focus, so too will be its shortcomings, and thus a renewed impetus to close the gap with an effective carbon price. The EU may force that with its border adjustment. So keep working for demand destruction and those ugly rigs at the end of the Earth will eventually sink into the melted permafrost like the mammoths. Ironic, isn’t it? (See and

  4. J4Zonian Says:

    Willow is not just an “environmentalist” concern

    We found that the majority [of news reports]—75%—framed the project’s importance primarily as [a] political battle with environmentalists, as opposed to a planetary concern.
    The majority of the stories we analyzed—73%—did mention Willow’s potential consequences for the climate. But it was not generally a priority. On average, the discussion of climate impacts didn’t appear until the seventh paragraph.
    37% of stories about the Willow project mentioned the necessity of phasing down fossil fuels to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. And when that nod to fossil fuel climate impacts did come, on average, it appeared in the 10th paragraph—often near the end of the article.

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