The Biden administration’s recent decision to defend a massive oil and gas drilling operation proposed for Alaska is simply part and parcel of governing a deeply divided country, say policy analysts.
Without a strong majority in Congress, President Joe Biden “can’t afford to take a pure position on the climate,” William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times. “That is the backdrop against which this president and the administration will be making trade-offs on every single issue.”
The trade-off in question now is the U.S. government’s decision to mount a federal court defence of the Willow project, a multi-billion-dollar effort by ConocoPhillips with capacity to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years. Proponents of the project are proving to be canny horse traders, arguing that Willow’s projected 2,000 jobs and US$1.2 billion in revenues will be a boon to local, and especially Indigenous, communities.
“If you kill these jobs, you are turning environmental justice on its head,” warned Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan (R).
The decision to back the Willow project comes in the wake of two other fossil-friendly moves by Biden this spring: backing the Trump administration’s decision to allow oil and gas development on federal lands in Wyoming, and declining to exert federal power to stop oil flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline.
On the other side of the equation, the Times notes, recent actions by the Biden administration have signalled a strong recommitment to climate action, including returning the United States to the Paris Agreement and nixing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
The Times flags ConocoPhillips’s bitterly ironic plan to “install ‘chillers’ into the permafrost—which is thawing fast because of climate change—to keep it solid enough to drill for oil, the burning of which will continue to worsen ice melt.”
After spending years fighting the Trump administration on the very policies Biden is now supporting, Earthjustice lawyer Drew Caputo was infuriated.
“These actions are carbon bombs,” he told the Times. “I get that they’re being pressured politically. I get that there are thin margins. But the climate crisis doesn’t care about any of that stuff.”