Biden Is Betraying a Climate Promise and Democrats Won’t Let Him Forget It

Democratic lawmakers are condemning the Biden administration’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope. The decision represents a clear reversal of Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to end the approval of new oil and gas permits on federal lands and waters. 

In a joint statement released through the House Natural Resources Committee, several Democratic lawmakers — including Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), committee ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said the decision “ignores the voices of the people of Nuiqsut, our frontline communities, and the irrefutable science that says we must stop building projects like this to slow the ever more devastating impacts of climate change.” 

Alongside its approval of the Willow project, the Biden administration announced that it will be placing more than 16 million acres of Alaskan Arctic land and water under federal protection from future drilling projects. Lawmakers expressed their disappointment with the Willow project’s exemption from these new protections. “Split decisions in the face of the climate crisis are not good enough,” read the statement from the Natural Resources Committee. “The only acceptable Willow project is no Willow project.”

The “split decision” wasn’t received well by Democrats on social media, either. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called the approval a “complete betrayal of Biden’s promise not to allow more drilling and a complete catastrophe to rein in climate chaos.” The senator pointed to the hypocrisy in the decision, writing that the United States “can’t ask other countries to forego their fossil fuels if we keep greenlighting projects here in America.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib wrote on Twitter that the project would have “devastating consequences on our planet, frontline communities, and wildlife.” Tlaib’s claim is bolstered by the Department of the Interior’s own analysis of the $8 billion project, which found “substantial concerns” regarding the project’s impact on wildlife in the region, and potential risk to freshwater sources. 

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) expressed concerns regarding the continued delay of large scale investments in renewable energy sources. “We should be doubling down on energy solutions that can rapidly provide Americans with cleaner and more affordable alternatives,” Cantwell wrote. 

Others argued that the promise to freeze new drilling permits in other federal lands would not offset the environmental impact of approving one of the largest fossil fuel projects in modern history, and that the carve-out for ConocoPhillips was a win for the oil industry. “Trading the huge Willow carbon bomb for conservation in other parts of the Arctic is a bad deal. I am not appeased by this split decision, and more importantly, neither is the climate crisis,” wrote Rep. Huffman. 

Sen. Markey called for the administration to put “people and our planet ahead of Big Oil profits.” 

“This decision not only leaves an oil stain on the administration’s climate accomplishments and the President’s commitment not to permit new oil and gas drilling on federal land, but slows our

progress in the fight for a more livable future,” Markey wrote in a statement released on Twitter. 

Days earlier, as rumors of the project’s approval leaked from the White House, Markey wrote that the decision was “a complete betrayal of Biden’s promise not to allow more drilling and a complete catastrophe to rein in climate chaos. You can’t ask other countries to forego their fossil fuels if we keep green lighting projects here in America.” 

The Department of the Interior indicated on Monday that two of the five drilling sites proposed by ConocoPhillips had been rejected, thus reducing the scale of the project. “The actions will create an additional buffer from exploration and development activities near the calving grounds and migratory routes for the Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd, an important subsistence resource for nearby Alaska Native communities,” the department wrote in a statement. “They significantly scale-back the Willow Project within the constraints of valid existing rights under decades-old leases issued by prior Administrations.”

Those constraints are the fact that ConocoPhillips has owned the drilling rights of the land for decades, a position legal experts say makes it difficult for the president to outright block the project from moving forward. 


But as Jamal Raad, co-founder of the climate group Evergreen Action told The Washington Post, “this does not negate or discount the climate impacts of the Willow project in any way, shape or form.”

“It’s lipstick on a pig,” he added.