In Two Opposite Decisions on Alaska Oil Drilling, Biden Walks a Difficult Path in Search of Bipartisanship

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The political tug-of-war over President Joe Biden’s climate policy played out on the tundra-covered North Slope of Alaska last week.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced it was suspending oil and gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), protecting, at least for the time being,  one of the nation’s few remaining untouched ecosystems from the energy development that President Donald Trump sought to initiate on the coastal plain.

Environmentalists hailed that move. But the praise was coupled with concern over the administration’s decision to advance a massive oil project a few hundred miles to the west of ANWR: ConocoPhillips’ so-called “Willow” project in the National Petroleum Reserve, a $2 billion plan that got the go-ahead from Trump last fall.

“We were definitely grateful that the Biden administration took this step and that they’re committed to preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “At the same time, it’s not going to work to address climate in some places and ignore it in others.”

The seemingly contradictory back-to-back decisions on Alaska oil reflect the difficult path ahead for the Biden administration as it seeks to enact an historically ambitious U.S. climate policy with the help of a narrowly-divided Congress. By defending the ConocoPhillips project, the administration was aligning itself with the project’s chief Congressional champion, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who happens to be one of the few Republicans who have expressed willingness to work with the White House toward an infrastructure deal. At the same time, Biden’s ANWR decision affirmed his stand on a core issue for environmentalists, who are part of a base that is growing increasingly restive over his efforts to forge bipartisanship.

“President Biden is walking a tightrope here, between his strong climate pledges and his need to maintain good relations with Senator Murkowski,” said Michael Gerrard, founder and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “I think he doesn’t have the ability to be completely pure. He needs to juggle.”

Drawing a Line in the Wilderness

Biden’s standing with the environmental movement would have been severely undercut if he had made any decision other than to halt the oil and gas exploitation of ANWR, a pristine wilderness often called “America’s Serengeti.” The refuge is sacred to the native Gwich’in people and home to more than 200 species of birds, 42 species of fish and 45 mammal species, including polar bears and tens of thousands of caribou. The refuge was established in 1960 by President Dwight Eisenhower, and although there has been persistent pressure for oil development, there was enough bipartisan support over most of the six decades that followed its creation to maintain that protection.

But in 2017, Congress opened the door to oil and gas leasing on ANWR’s coastal plain as part of Trump’s signature legislative achievement: his massive tax cut bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that lease sales would generate $1.1 billion in revenue for the federal government over the next decade. But when the administration rushed through the lease sale during Trump’s final weeks in office, less than one-tenth of one percent of that projected windfall was realized. The sale, executed on Jan. 6—the day of the violent storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters—generated only $14.4 million in revenue, with Alaska’s own industrial development agency leading the bidding and no interest from major oil and gas companies.

Biden’s Interior Department said that it would suspend the leases pending the comprehensive analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Trump administration’s review failed to consider a “no action” alternative—a required element of NEPA reviews—and it did not consider alternatives such as leasing a smaller area. In multiple lawsuits brought against the Trump leasing program, native peoples said the administration had failed to consider the spiritual and cultural significance of the site.

In a joint statement thanking both Biden and the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, environmental groups and representatives of the Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples made clear they did not consider the fight to protect ANWR over.

“More work remains…and we look forward to working with the administration on stronger action to correct this unlawful leasing program and preserve one of our nation’s most majestic public lands,” they said, urging the administration and Congress to prioritize repealing the leasing mandate that was included in the Trump tax bill.

Industry Resolve to Keep Producing

On the same day as the ANWR decision, ConocoPhillips announced that its Willow project had cleared a key review by the Interior Department. “Although the final decision on the Willow Project is still pending, clearing the DOI review represents a very significant milestone for this project,” said Erec Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, in a statement.

Days earlier, the Biden administration had filed a brief in the U.S. district court for Alaska defending the Trump administration’s approval of the Willow project. Environmentalists were dismayed at the decision to back a project to produce more than 100,000 additional barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years. Only last month, the International Energy Agency released a report concluding that to meet the climate commitments of the Paris agreement, no new oil and gas fields should be approved. 

“If we’re going to truly and aggressively address the climate crisis, there’s going to have to be a wholesale look at the future of any oil and gas development across the entire Arctic, across the entire country,” said Miller.

The Willow project, however, had been a top priority of Murkowski, who now is one of a handful of centrists the Biden White House is focused on in its effort to forge bipartisan deals, especially on its American Jobs Plan package. Her office said Biden’s decision to defend the project in court came after “weeks of advocacy and outreach” by Murkowsk and other members of the Alaska Congressional delegation, some of it directly with the president.

“I’ve been working from the get-go to educate the new administration on why the Willow project is so important to Alaska’s economy, the communities on the North Slope, and the thousands of people who are employed in the region,” she said in a statement.

Murkowski is a fierce defender of Alaska interests, including those of the oil industry, the largest contributor to the state’s economy. Crude oil production in the state last year was at its lowest level since 1976, putting at risk the economic viability of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from the North Slope to Valdez. Increasing North Slope production has been a key priority of the oil industry, even with oil demand anemic and the industry’s prospects uncertain in a carbon-constrained future. The Willow project, in many ways, exemplifies the oil industry’s resolve to continue producing, even as the realities of climate change become manifest, startlingly so in Arctic Alaska; ConocoPhillips plans to install “chillers” into the melting permafrost to make it solid enough to support its oil-drilling equipment.

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At the same time that Murkowski has championed expanded drilling in northern Alaska, she also has spoken about the need to address global warming, and the negative impact that diminishing sea ice and the thawing of permafrost is having on her state. “In Alaska, we view that there is no choice here,” but to take climate change seriously, she has said.

In Congress, Murkowski, who until last year was Senate Energy Committee chair, has supported energy efficiency and investments in research and development into renewable energy, energy storage, carbon capture and advanced nuclear. Her close ally in these efforts was then-top-ranking Democrat committee member, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is now committee chairman. The two cosponsored an energy efficiency and research bill that became part of the big budget and Covid relief package that Congress passed at the end of 2020. 

It is both Murkowski’s close relationship with Manchin, and her willingness to cross the aisle to vote with Democrats—she voted in favor of Haaland’s confirmation and the need for a Jan. 6 Commission—that puts her in a key position vis-a-vis the Biden White House.

“Sen. Murkowski is one of the few hopes [Biden] has for any Republican votes on much of his agenda,” said Gerrard. And with Manchin and perhaps other Democrats—especially Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—uncertain on the infrastructure bill, “he needs every vote he can get,” Gerrard said. “Murkowski is an important potential ally, so Biden in some ways has to give a little to get a lot.”

It’s not yet clear how much Biden has given or gotten on the Willow project. A federal appeals court has halted construction while it considers legal challenges, and environmentalists are still hoping the Biden administration will ultimately stop the project. And, although Murkowski has expressed willingness to work with the White House on infrastructure—for example, she has proposed funding to save Alaska’s ferry system with electric-powered ferries—she believes the package should be scaled back. Murkowski also joined with other members of Alaska’s Republican Congressional delegation in rebuking the administration for halting the ANWR leasing. “This action serves no purpose other than to obstruct Alaska’s economy and put our energy security at great risk,” they said in a statement. “Alaskans are committed to developing our resources responsibly and have demonstrated our ability to do so safely to the world.” 

In the meantime, many environmentalists, concerned that time is running out on the opportunity to pass historic infrastructure and climate legislation, question the utility of working for Republican support, especially if it involves making compromises over fossil fuel development.

“The climate crisis is the climate crisis, and we’re going to have to address it with every single oil project, regardless of the politics,” said Miller. “The emissions don’t change because of the politics.”

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