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Does President Biden mean what he says on climate?

President Biden
AP/Alex Brandon
President Joe Biden speaks at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In his recent State of the Union address, President Biden acknowledged the “existential threat” posed by climate change, citing an obligation to our children and grandchildren to confront it. Now, his administration is about to test its fidelity to that obligation. It will soon decide whether to approve a major drilling project in Alaska that could pump 280 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, derailing the administration’s ability to meet its own climate commitments. 

The Biden administration has set the most ambitious climate agenda in U.S. history, pledging to more than halve U.S. emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. Thanks to watershed legislation, including the Inflation Reduction Act, we have our last, best chance to build a clean economy before it is too late.

Yet, despite scientific consensus urging us to cut emissions as much as possible, we find ourselves approving projects that will dig our climate hole deeper. In 2021, this administration made history by offering the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale ever in the Gulf of Mexico. It continues to open public land and waters to new drilling, all despite the president’s campaign promise of “no more drilling on federal lands, period.” The possibility that it will greenlight ConocoPhillips’s Willow Project in Alaska threatens to render that promise hollow.

If approved, Willow would rank among the worst sources of pollution in the country. Its emissions would exceed those of any other planned project on federal lands. To put the wreckage in perspective, Willow could produce more than twice as much emissions than the administration’s renewable energy projects on public lands by 2030 would cut combined. Last year, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland called those renewable projects part of “a clean energy revolution.” This year, her department is poised to enable a counterrevolution twice the size, one that would cut miles of pipelines and roads into fragile wild lands.

Even in its design, the Willow project reflects the consequences of climate change, which are unfolding fastest in the Arctic. Warming temperatures have thawed the permafrost where ConocoPhillips proposes to build its sprawling complex of new roads and oil pads. The company needs massive, energy-intensive “cooling devices” to refreeze the permafrost just to keep the operations on solid ground. The land itself seems to grasp the obvious: We are not supposed to be doing this. 

Earthjustice, the nonprofit environmental law firm that I lead, brought emergency litigation to stop the project in 2020 when the Trump administration rushed to approve it. When Biden’s administration came into office, Willow’s future was still undecided. His administration took the Trump line and defended the project on appeal. Earthjustice and our clients won, giving Biden’s Interior Department another opportunity to make a more informed policy decision. This month, they issued its final environmental impact assessment — meaning a final decision is imminent.

Now, Biden has a narrow window of time to get this right. In addition to spewing planet-warming carbon, Willow would jeopardize the largest remaining wildlife refuge in the polar region — home to polar bears, musk oxen, migratory birds from every continent and the largest caribou herd left in the polar north. It’s not just wildlife; in a harrowing letter, leaders of the nearby Village of Nuiqsut and City of Nuiqsut detailed how Willow would threaten the cultural survival of Alaska Native communities.

Approving Willow would pave the way for ConocoPhillips and others to expand their operations westward. Another giant oil and gas proposed project called Peregrine would rely on Willow’s infrastructure to drill up to 1.6 billion barrels of oil, which would release a staggering amount of carbon — equivalent to firing 173 coal plants for a year.

The good news is that the Biden administration can still say no. It is fully within the administration’s legal authority to reject or simply defer the project.

This far along into the climate crisis, it is not enough to hand out federal funding for clean energy projects — as crucial as that is. To meet its obligation to future generations, the administration must also deny permits for operations that lock us into a fossil fuel future. The question is whether Biden is willing to use both the carrots and the sticks at his disposal. His final decision on the Willow Project, which could come in early March, will offer a definitive answer. It will show whether he believes his own words.  

Abigail Dillen is the president of Earthjustice, the country’s largest nonprofit public-interest environmental law organization.

This piece has been updated.

Tags biden administration Climate change climate promises Deb Haaland Drilling Joe Biden oil and gas

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