Biden angers climate activists by approving controversial oil, gas project in Alaska

By James McCarten, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden dismayed progressive allies across the continent Monday by approving a controversial oil and gas project in Alaska, a sharp pivot from the climate change offensive that marked his first two years in office. 

The Willow project will see energy giant ConocoPhillips develop three drill sites in the petroleum-rich North Slope region, a “substantially” smaller footprint than the original five-site proposal, the U.S. Interior Department said.

The decision also requires ConocoPhillips to relinquish long-standing drilling rights on roughly 275 square kilometres of land in the northwestern region known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. 

But climate activists say even the scaled-down version of the project is a “carbon bomb” capable of 300 million tonnes of pollution over the next 30 years that will kneecap Biden’s own efforts to ease U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

Caroline Brouillette, acting executive director of the Canadian branch of the group Climate Action Network, called it a bad signal from a president who spent the last two years “posturing” on global climate action. 

“I think we’re seeing from President Joe Biden the same logic of political compromise that has characterized climate policy, quite frankly, around the world in past years,” Brouillette said. 

That approach “does not square with the physics of climate change,” she added.

“We have to bend the curve of global emissions right now — and approving massive carbon bombs like the Willow project will, in effect, do exactly the opposite of that.” 

It’s impossible to overstate the negative impact a massive fossil fuel project on public land could have on the fight against climate change, Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous said shortly after the decision was announced.  

“The carbon pollution it will spew into the air will have devastating effects for our communities, wildlife, and the climate,” Jealous said in a statement. “We will suffer the consequences of this for decades to come.” 

To soften the political blow, the administration is moving to limit further development in the region, protecting more than 52,000 square kilometres already designated as ecologically “special areas.” 

Biden is also banning future offshore oil and gas leases in a swath of about 11,500 square kilometres beneath the waves of the Arctic Ocean.

Brouillette and Sierra Club Canada spokesman Conor Curtis both drew comparisons between the news and the federal government’s 2022 decision to greenlight the ambitious Bay du Nord offshore oil megaproject.  

Much as the Biden administration did Monday, Ottawa tried to soften the blow of that approval by adding a number of regulatory caveats, including one requiring that it meet a net-zero emissions target by 2050. 

“Canada’s government deserves just as much criticism for its continued expansion of oil and gas as the government of the United States,” Curtis said.

“We call upon both countries to put an end to the expansion of oil and gas development. There is no room for, ‘Just one last oil and gas project.'”

Monday’s decision, an awkward one for a climate-conscious Democrat, has as much to do with the political realities of the U.S. presidential election cycle as it does with climate change and fossil fuel dependence. 

Democrats controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate, albeit narrowly, during the first half of Biden’s term, allowing the White House to focus on placating the progressive wing of the president’s own party.

Now, saddled with a divided Congress and the prospect of a resurgent Republican party and its headline-grabbing nomination race, Biden — like countless other predecessors — has little choice but to tack toward the political centre.

So too for Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat in ruby-red West Virginia who helped to craft and pass Biden’s landmark climate spending package last year, who cheered the decision to greenlight Willow. 

“This is a long-awaited and critical step toward shoring up American energy security,” said Manchin, an energy-industry ally who is chairman of the Senate committee on energy and natural resources.  

“Responsible development of our abundant natural resources is essential if we are to maintain our status as the superpower of the world, capable of supporting our allies around the globe.”

Not surprisingly, progressive Democrats were aghast. 

Approving Willow “is wrong on every level,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley tweeted. 

“It destroys our climate goals and undermines international climate ambition. We can’t ask other nations to curb dirty energy production if we’re green-lighting fossil projects.”

Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib called it a “disastrous” decision that promises “devastating consequences” for communities, wildlife and the planet.

Taken together, the Willow and Bay du Nord decisions suggest that both Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are more concerned about political expediency than they are serious about tackling climate change, Brouillette said. 

“Canada shares similar struggles in terms of really joining actions with its word when it comes to the protection of Indigenous rights and sovereignty,” she said. 

“The U.S. and Canada have shown that they don’t understand that crucial threshold of climate leadership with these decisions … while continuing to ignore this elephant in the climate policy room.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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