By Lisa Friedman
© The New York Times Co.
WASHINGTON » Despite President Joe Biden’s pledge to cut the pollution from fossil fuels that is driving climate change, his administration quietly has taken actions this month that will guarantee the drilling and burning of oil and gas for decades.
The clash between Biden’s pledges 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 underpinned its economy for more than a century.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration defended in federal court the Willow project, a huge oil drilling operation proposed on Alaska’s North Slope that was approved by the Trump administration and is being fought by environmentalists.
Weeks earlier, it backed former President Donald Trump’s decision to grant oil and gas leases on federal land in Wyoming. Also this month, it declined to act when it had an opportunity to stop crude oil from continuing to flow through the bitterly contested, 2,700mile Dakota Access pipeline, which lacks a federal permit.
The three decisions suggest the jagged road that Biden is following as he tries to balance his climate agenda against practical and political pressures.
Biden “can’t afford to take a pure position on the climate” because he lacks strong majorities in Congress, said William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “That is the backdrop against which this president and the administration will be making trade-offs on every single issue.”
After successfully campaigning on a pledge to address global warming, Biden hit the pause button on any new gas or oil leases on federal lands and waters, returned the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change and squashed the controversial proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline — all on his first day in office.
But he also is trying to provide a safety net for people employed in the oil, gas and coal sectors, including union workers, and ease the transition into wind, solar and other renewables.
Biden also is trying to avoid alienating a handful of moderate Republicans and Democrats from oil, gas and coal states who will decide the fate of his legislative agenda in Congress. Among them is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, for whom the Willow project is a top priority and who grilled Deb Haaland about it during Haaland’s confirmation hearing for interior secretary in February.
Haaland, who opposed the Willow project as a member of Congress, personally called Murkowski and other members of Alaska’s all-Republican delegation this week to tell them the Biden administration would support the project in federal court in Anchorage, House and Senate aides confirmed.
The decision on the Willow project was made as the Biden administration is trying to win Republican support for its infrastructure package and other policies, said Gerald Torres, a professor of law and environmental justice at Yale University.
“He is going to need Murkowski’s vote for some things,” he said. “These are political calculations.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, RAlaska, said he, Murkowski and Rep. Don Young of Alaska have met with Haaland “ad nauseam” about Alaska issues, including the Willow project. Sullivan said he repeatedly made the case that Willow’s projected 2,000 jobs and $1.2 billion in revenues should be seen as part of the Biden administration’s focus on environmental equity, as it would directly benefit local and Alaska Native communities in the North Slope.
“If you kill these jobs you are turning environmental justice on its head,” Sullivan said.