WASHINGTON – Despite President Biden’s promise to aggressively reduce the fossil fuel pollution that is causing climate change, his administration quietly took action this month that will ensure oil is drilled and burned and of gas for decades to come.
The clash between Mr. Biden’s commitments and some of his recent decisions illustrates the political, technical and legal difficulties of disentangling the country from the oil, gas and coal that have supported its economy for more than a century.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration defended Project Willow, a massive proposed oil drilling operation on the North Slope of Alaska, approved by the Trump administration and opposed by environmentalists, in federal court. A few weeks earlier, he had supported former President Donald J. Trump’s decision to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands in Wyoming. Also this month, he refused to act when given the opportunity to prevent crude oil from continuing to flow through the hotly contested 2,700-mile Dakota Access pipeline, which has no federal permit.
The three rulings point to the roller coaster ride Mr Biden is taking as he tries to balance his climate agenda against practical and political pressures.
Mr Biden “cannot afford to take a pure stance on the climate” because he lacks strong majorities in Congress, said William A. Galston, senior researcher in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. Washington. “This is the backdrop against which this president and the administration will compromise on every issue.”
After successfully campaigning on a pledge to fight global warming, Mr Biden pressed the pause button on any new gas or oil lease on federal lands and waters, the United States referred to l ‘Paris Agreement on climate change and crushed the controversial proposal to build the Keystone XL Pipeline – all on his first day in office.
But it also tries to provide a safety net for those employed in the oil, gas and coal industries, including unionized workers, and to ease the transition to wind, solar and other renewables.
Equally important, Mr. Biden is trying to avoid alienating a handful of Republicans and moderate Democrats from the oil, gas and coal states who will decide the fate of his legislative agenda in Congress. Among them is Lisa Murkowski, the Republican Senator from Alaska for whom Project Willow is a top priority and who toasted Deb Haaland about it during Ms Haaland’s confirmation hearing for Home Secretary. in February.
Ms Haaland, who opposed the Willow Project as a congresswoman, personally called Ms Murkowski and other members of the All-Republican Alaskan delegation this week to tell them the Biden administration will support the project. in federal court in Anchorage, the House and the Senate. helpers confirmed.
The decision on the Willow Project came as the Biden administration was trying to gain Republican support for its infrastructure package and other policies, said Gerald Torres, professor of law and environmental justice at the Yale University. “He’s going to need Murkowski’s vote for some things,” he said. “These are political calculations.
Alaskan Republican Senator Dan Sullivan said in an interview that he, Ms Murkowski and Rep. Don Young from Alaska had all met Ms Haaland “ad nauseam” on Alaska’s issues, including the Willow project. Mr Sullivan said he has repeatedly argued that the 2,000 jobs and $ 1.2 billion in revenue planned by Willow should be seen as part of the Biden administration’s focus on the environmental equity, as this would directly benefit local and native Alaskan communities in the North Slope.
“If you cut these jobs, you are overthrowing environmental justice,” Sullivan said.
ConocoPhillips’ multibillion dollar plan to drill into part of the national oil reserve would produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day through 2050. It is challenged by environmental groups who have said the Trump administration did not take into account the impact that drilling would have on fragile wildlife and that burning oil would have on global warming.
In a Kafka-worthy paradox, ConocoPhillips plans to install “coolers” in the permafrost – which is melting rapidly due to climate change – to keep it strong enough to drill for oil, the combustion of which will continue to worsen the melting ice. .
Earlier this month, lawyers for the Biden administration also opposed in court the closure of the Dakota Access pipeline, which transports approximately 550,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other activists have been fighting it for more than five years, saying the pipeline threatens water supplies and sacred sites.
The Biden administration could have decided to shut down the pipeline while the Army Corps of Engineers conducts a new court-ordered environmental review, but it chose not to intervene. U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg for the District of Columbia criticized the administration for its inaction.
Days later, the Biden administration defended 440 oil and gas leases issued by the Trump administration on federal lands in Wyoming, which are also critical habitat for sage grouse, mule deer and antelope. ‘America. Environmentalists successfully sued the government to end the leases, arguing they violated a 2015 agreement that protected the land. But in the federal appeals court, the Biden administration defended the decision to allow oil and gas drilling.
Environmental activists, who campaigned to elect Mr Biden, said this week they were “baffled” and “disappointed” by the decisions but have avoided criticizing the president.
Still, some have said they lack patience with the distance between Mr Biden’s climate policies and his actions at a time when scientists say countries need to quickly and sharply cut fossil fuel emissions or risk irreversible damage. to the planet.
“These are bad decisions,” said Drew Caputo, lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, who has fought the Trump administration policies that Mr. Biden now defends. “These actions are carbon bombs.”
The physics of climate change are ruthless, said Caputo. To prevent global temperatures from reaching dangerously high levels, fossil fuel extraction must stop, he said.
“I understand that they are under political pressure. I understand there are thin margins, ”he said. “But the climate crisis doesn’t care about any of that.”
This month, the world’s leading energy agency warned that governments around the world must stop approving fossil fuel projects now if they are to keep rising average global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. , compared to pre-industrial levels. This is the threshold beyond which scientists say the Earth will suffer irreversible damage.
White House, Home Office, and Justice Department press officers all declined to comment on how the administration’s recent decisions align with its climate commitments. The Home Office also said it would have no comment on why Ms Haaland backed down on the Willow Project after calling it “blatant” in a letter she then signed. that she sat in Congress.
In its court case for Willow, the government said the Trump administration correctly considered its impacts on fish, caribou and polar bear habitat. It also confirmed the method used by the previous administration to account for the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the project.
“Conoco has valid lease rights,” the record says, noting that under the law the company is allowed to expand its leases “subject to reasonable regulation.”
Amy M. Jaffe, director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said she was not concerned that a handful of states would continue to produce fossil fuels.
“To use an oil analogy, we’re not changing a steamboat. We are changing the course of a giant supertanker. It will not happen overnight, ”Ms. Jaffe said, adding:“ It is a long and thoughtful process to move an entire country the size of the United States, with the complexity of the economy that we have. , towards a major energy transition. . “