Biden approves Willow Project in desperate bid for reelection


Alex Berger | Flickr

Caspar Gajewski

This is the lie — line — that was repeated ad nauseam, in the press and conversation: “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.” It was uttered by President Joe Biden during the 2020 general election. 

He betrayed that promise on March 13 by announcing his approval for ConocoPhillips’ Willow project on federal lands in northern Alaska, which will produce carbon emissions equivalent to adding 64 coal plants to the United States’ existing fleet over the next 30 years.

Politico condemned the project as “Biden-moves-to-the-center.”  The Guardian columnist Rebecca Solnit decried the plan as “climate terrorism.” And journalist David Wallace-Wells lyrically described the announcement as having arrived with the “thud of betrayal and the air of inevitability” in an Op-Ed for The New York Times.  

Biden’s approval of the Willow Project is an existential calamity as it pertains to humanity’s overwhelmingly blasé attitude towards climate change. 

His administration has undermined the trust he earned from young voters during the general election and after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. He is no longer the “climate president.” 

While it is true that Willow will annually produce roughly two-tenths of 1% of current U.S. emissions, it is most alarming that this logic, which justified Willow’s approval, can be used to justify any fossil fuel project. 

This time last year, it was the war in Ukraine, which drove gas prices up globally, vexing American consumers; but the inverse of that calculus assumes, wrongly, that a perfect moment will arise to minimize, and then cease, fossil fuel production and use altogether.

Due to its size, climate change induces both a scream and a shrug. What’s one more drop — or 180,000 barrels a day, as Willow is expected to produce — against all that has been done and is being done to the climate? 

Imagine it like this: After dinner, someone might be too tired to do the dishes. They’ll reason that the dishes will get done the next morning, and then the next, and suddenly, there’s a mountain of silverware in the sink. 

Eventually, the pile is too high to turn on the tap. Each new dirty dish crashes to the floor. This is what the Willow project represents. Any more is too much.

It begs the question: why did Biden approve the project?

There’s a legal argument, albeit a weak one. ConocoPhillips has held valid leases to land in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, where Willow has been situated for over two decades. 

If Biden denies their actuation, his administration will be taken to court where it would likely face damage charges in the billions. 

There’s also the political component. With inflation rising and gas prices higher, Biden is sliding to the center, seeking independent votes in the upcoming presidential primary. 

But his election in 2020 was predicated on a surge in young voters, millions of whom sent letters and signed a petition castigating the Willow project in the lead-up to its approval. So, no luck there.

It is possible that Biden, having passed the Inflation Reduction Act, thinks he’s done enough with his green industrial policy — with its incentives and tax credits — to transition the U.S. and the world, by example, away from fossil fuels. 

That, however, isn’t the case, so long as the U.S. still lacks sufficient transmission lines and expeditious environmental review policy to usher in green energy at scale. 

The choice was more likely driven by political expediency. The entire Alaska congressional delegation, which includes one Democrat and multiple indigenous groups, supported the project’s passage. 

Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, who has been integral to Biden’s senatorial success, spent an hour with him in the lead-up to Monday’s announcement. 

Biden’s publicly professed adoration for bygone American bipartisanship, to say nothing of his vain desire to get reelected, seems to have blinded him to the needs of the planet’s most vulnerable populations, both alive and unborn. 

One week after the Willow announcement, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its “AR6 Synthesis” report, which, as its name suggests, contains no new information, but rather amalgamates its most recent findings. 

“Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health (very high confidence),” the IPCC wrote in the report. “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence).”

Put simply, to quote those old, derided environmentalists: keep it in the ground. It seems, however, that Biden would rather keep himself in office.