Biden administration seeks to mend fences over Willow Project approval

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The Biden administration is trying to mend fences with progressive groups and voters furious over its decision to approve a massive oil drilling effort in Alaska known as the Willow Project.

The project has garnered significant opposition, not only from environmentalists, but from young voters broadly, with topics like #StopWillow trending on TikTok in the days before the administration greenlighted it.

Leading up to and following the decision, the administration made overtures to the environmental movement seeking to listen to the concerns of advocates.

After the announcement, officials with the White House Council on Environmental Quality met with environmental organizations, a person familiar with that effort told The Hill.

The officials took on more of a listening role in those sessions as groups, including more mainstream environmental groups that are typically allies with the administration, expressed their anger.

The administration’s public message on Willow has been that the project was approved because of legal constraints, since leases to drill there were granted years ago. Officials have also noted that the size of the project was shrunk down from ConocoPhillips’s original proposal.

“My strong inclination was to disapprove of it across the board but the advice I got from counsel was that if that were the case, I may very well lose … that case in court to the oil company and then not be able to do what I really want to do beyond that,” Biden said Friday.

Mark Squillace, a law professor at the University of Colorado, told The Hill that a person with the lease has a right to develop energy on that lease, so the government would have to give them some right to drill there — or it would have to buy back the leases, which could have a hefty price tag.

The administration has also announced a series of moves on conservation, though it does not appear that has mollified those upset with the Willow move.

“You can’t cover up carbon emissions with conservation,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The Hill.

“The impact of the Willow Project is so extensive and expansive. It is really hard to imagine a way to make up for the carbon emissions,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding that the approval broke trust with young and progressive voters.

The Willow Project is a ConocoPhillips effort to extract 576 million barrels of oil from Alaska over a 30-year period. It is estimated to result in 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifespan — equivalent to driving more than 51 million gasoline-powered cars for a year.

The day before the decision, the Interior Department said it would propose protections for 13 million acres of federally owned land in Alaska that have significant natural and historic value. It also said it would block 2.8 million acres in the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas drilling, though there has not been a federal lease sale in the Arctic Ocean since 2007.

The day after the Willow decision, the administration withdrew a Trump-era land swap that would have allowed construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The following week, President Biden announced the designation of two new national monuments and efforts to expand a third marine monument.

Those moves did garner applause from environmentalists, but many said the policies did not make up for the impacts of the Willow Project.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the former chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and current top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said the moves this past week were a positive first step.

He told The Hill that the administration will need to do more with regulations, additional land and water protections, and making sure the Inflation Reduction Act speeds up the energy transition.

Grijalva told The Hill that he was planning to roll out a list of policies in April that can be taken on to “mitigate” the decision and said that he hoped to see more monument designations.

The decision to approve Willow coincided with Biden’s decision to sign a GOP measure overturning a sentencing proposal approved by the city council of Washington, D.C.

It’s sparked worries on the left that the White House will move further to the center as Biden prepared for an expected reelection run next year.

“That’s going to be a situation for the next two years,” one progressive Democratic source said.

“But they’re going to need us in 2024,” the source added. “We march on.”

Groups like the Sunrise Movement have said that in the wake of the decision, the Biden administration needs to take other steps, like declaring a climate emergency, to prove his commitment to the issue.

“They need to do things like declare a climate emergency. Biden needs to invoke the defense Production Act, and really prove to our generation that he is serious about fighting the crisis,” said Sunrise’s Electoral Director Michele Weindling.

Declaring a climate emergency could empower Biden to use the Defense Production Act to speed up production for low-carbon energy technology.

Democratic strategist Jon Reinish said that the Biden administration is having to juggle competing crises amid both climate change and high energy prices.

“Should the president and his administration make every move to politically and policy-wise counterbalance this with further pro-environment, anti-climate change policy? Absolutely,” Reinish said.

“For instance, it was great to see that the White House is talking about designating a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean as the world’s largest marine preserve. Do more things like that,” he added.

However, he noted that with a polarizing conservative figure like former President Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) likely to be on the ballot, he still expects progressive and climate-minded voters to show up to the polls, even if they are frustrated with Biden.

“Hate is more motivating than love in such polarized political times, so something tells me that this will not make young voters or single-issue voters stay home,” Reinish said. “Anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together would realize that Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis would be a cataclysmic disaster for climate change.”

Hanna Trudo contributed to this report, which was updated at 8:53 a.m.

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