President Biden broke one of the main promises he made to voters during his presidential campaign this week, green-lighting a massive oil drilling project on federal land to the chagrin of prominent progressives and environmental groups.
On Monday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) approved permits for oil company ConocoPhillips' proposed 30-year Willow Project in northern Alaska. While the agency touted that it had reduced the size of the project by 40%, environmentalists noted that, under the approved three-site version, it would still yield about 92% of the oil the company sought to produce with the original five-site proposal.
"The Biden administration has committed to fighting climate change and advancing environmental justice—today’s decision to approve the Willow project fails to live up to those promises," Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. said in a joint statement Monday.
"Their decision ignores ... the irrefutable science that says we must stop building projects like this to slow the ever more devastating impacts of climate change," they continued. "The only acceptable Willow project is no Willow project."
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Approving Willow — which could produce up to 614 million barrels over its life span which, when burned, could spew 278 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the carbon footprint equivalent of 2 million cars — is a significant departure from Biden's 2020 campaign platform.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden repeatedly pledged to block new oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters while promising to steer clear of wildlife refuges in Alaska. In one instance, at a September 2019 campaign stop in New Hampshire, Biden told a young climate activist to "look in my eyes" before adding, "I guarantee you, we are going to end fossil fuel."
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"[Biden will take actions] protecting America’s natural treasures by permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters; and banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters," Biden's official campaign website stated as his top energy policy priority.
"Number one, no more subsidies for fossil fuel industry. No more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period," Biden remarked during a March 2020 Democratic debate.
The president, though, actively oversaw the Willow decision process and ultimately gave the green light to project, directly contradicting his pledge to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal lands. Although White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the decision Thursday, saying the president's hands were tied legally, the administration has repeatedly reversed past lease decision implemented by the Trump administration.
"It’s disappointing to see Secretary [Deb] Haaland and President [Joe] Biden approve the ‘Willow Project’ for ConocoPhillips," Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., tweeted Monday. "The Western Arctic is one of the last great wild landscapes on the planet and as public land it belongs to every American. Industrial development in this unspoiled landscape will not age well."
"This is a step backwards," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., added in a separate tweet. "The best way to lower energy prices is to shift to renewables — cheaper in the long run and not subject to Big Oil’s price gouging whims."
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., noted that Biden had pledged to ban drilling on federal lands during the campaign.
"This disastrous decision to approve the Willow Project in Alaska, one of the largest oil development projects in decades, will have devastating consequences on our planet, frontline communities, and wildlife," Tlaib said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., similarly blasted the decision, saying it was "wrong on every level."
"Youth voter turnout was at its highest in 2020 & young folks supported him because of commitments such as ‘no more drilling on federal land,’" Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., added. "That commitment has been broken."