Why Biden Isn’t Cracking Down on Fossil Fuels

Picture this predicament, described by our climate reporter Lisa Friedman in her latest article as “a paradox worthy of Kafka”: In order to break through the earth and tap the oil in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, ConocoPhillips must install “chillers” into the thawing permafrost.

And why is it thawing in the first place? Because of global warming, brought on by burning the very sort of fossil fuels that ConocoPhillips is extracting.

With Joe Biden’s election in November, environmental advocates had hoped that such drilling on U.S. soil might become a thing of the past. But as Lisa documents in her article, ConocoPhillips’s work in Alaska is just one of several drilling and pipeline projects that Biden’s administration has recently gotten behind. Rather than turn back the Trump administration’s support for fossil fuels, Biden is in some cases defending it.

The reasons are complicated — and have a lot to do with the tricky politics of governance while Democrats have only the narrowest control of Congress. To help us understand what’s been going on, and what the consequences might be for the environment, I caught up with Lisa today. Here’s what she told me.

Hi, Lisa. On the campaign trail last year, Joe Biden criticized the Trump administration for continuing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. But this month, Biden’s administration has taken a number of steps to endorse actions taken by Trump that would increase drilling on U.S. land and allow a major pipeline project to go forward. Catch us up on what’s happening.

When Joe Biden was campaigning for president, he said he wanted to see the United States “transition” away from oil and other fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, and yes, he also criticized many of his predecessor’s moves that locked in oil, gas and coal development in the United States.

Since he’s taken office, Biden has put climate change front and center. He’s set an ambitious goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of this decade, and he’s made a huge push on things like electric vehicle charging stations, offshore wind development and other clean energy production.

Over the past month, though, his administration has also taken some steps that really worry environmental groups. In at least three cases, the Biden administration has offered support in court or declined to block oil and gas projects that could lock in decades more of the fossil fuel pollution that is heating the planet. The most recent is the administration’s support for ConocoPhillips’s multibillion-dollar oil drilling project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, known as the Willow project, which was approved by the Trump administration and is slated to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for about 30 years.

Democrats control both houses of Congress — but in each case, their grip on power depends on moderate Democratic lawmakers who don’t share progressives’ flat-out opposition to new drilling. How much has this factored into the calculus for the White House?

It’s huge. Democrats have razor-thin control, and if Biden is going to get big priorities like his American Jobs Plan through Congress, he will have to bring along moderate Republicans like Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — and Democrats from fossil fuel-heavy states like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

When the Biden administration backed the Willow project in Alaska this week, the hope that Murkowski might be a future ally on legislative issues was surely part of the calculations.

On Day 1 of his presidency, Biden took a number of steps that sent a welcome signal to climate activists: He stopped granting new drilling leases on federal lands, pledged to rejoin the Paris climate accord and committed to nixing the Keystone XL pipeline. But how are environmental advocates reacting to his administration’s pro-drilling turn of late?

Well, the reaction has been muted, at least publicly. Environmental groups are in fact really pleased with a lot of the Biden administration’s climate policies and efforts to pause new drilling leases, and not many are willing to directly criticize the president because of that. As Bill McKibben, a leading climate activist and a founder of 350.org, told me, “I think people who care about climate understand Biden has a narrow majority and a big agenda, so they’ve been granting him the benefit of the doubt.”

Behind the scenes, though, there’s a huge amount of concern. Groups are worried that Biden is trying to have it both ways — enact aggressive climate policies while keeping the support of union leaders and lawmakers from fossil fuel states — by letting some projects move forward. The problem, they warn, is that the International Energy Agency just warned governments that if they really want to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and avoid the worst consequences of climate change, investment in new fossil fuel projects need to stop now.

You mentioned the Willow project, a huge drilling proposal in northern Alaska. This is an instructive example of the complicated politics that Biden — and his secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland — is confronting. Can you tell us where things stand with that?

The Willow project is where a lot of different political threads intersect.

Haaland came into this position a fierce opponent of new fossil fuel projects — and in fact signed on to a letter when she served in the House opposing the Willow project and calling it “egregious.” But Haaland also owes her job, in part, to Alaska lawmakers. Representative Don Young of Alaska introduced Haaland at her confirmation hearing and endorsed her, and Murkowski ultimately cast a surprise vote in favor of Haaland, even though she said she “struggled” with the decision.

The Interior Department declined to say what exactly changed Haaland’s opinion in favor of the Willow project. But there seems to be no doubt that the administration’s decision was part of a recognition of the sway held by the Alaska delegation.

The project itself has been on hold since February, when a federal judge temporarily suspended construction after environmental groups sued, claiming the Trump administration had ignored or improperly accounted for the threats to caribou, migratory birds and polar bears — as well as the effects on climate change. Supporters of the project said they were hopeful that with the Biden administration’s support, they will ultimately prevail in that suit.

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