Climate activists want to keep the battle against Alaska's Willow oil project alive

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Mar. 23—WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden delivered remarks on Tuesday designating new national monuments and touting his administration's conservation record, including recent protections for the Tongass National Forest and the Bristol Bay watershed, at the Department of the Interior.

A few dozen protesters gathered outside, decrying the president's address as "hypocrisy." They played audio on a speaker of Biden during his 2020 presidential campaign vowing "no more drilling on federal lands" on a loop.

Last week, the Biden administration approved the Willow project, a multibillion-dollar ConocoPhillips oil development in National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Environmental groups were enraged by the decision, saying that the project endangers the Biden administration's goals to reduce emissions and limit oil drilling on public lands.

Groups including the Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club took immediate action, suing the day after Willow's approval and arguing that the Interior Department wrongfully approved the project.

Now that Willow has been approved, the short-term strategy is litigation, said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club's Lands Protection Program.

"Long term, we're trying to find out some other levers to pull to push back on this," he said the day after the administration approved Willow.

"But it's difficult. This is a tough one," Manuel said. "There aren't a lot of other options right now outside of the courts, where we can slow this down and/or stop it."

Still, on Monday, a dozen protesters prevented White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi from delivering a speech about the "Future of U.S. Climate & Energy Leadership" at a Washington event, chanting, "Keep your promise, no new drilling," according to a Reuters report.

On Tuesday morning in front of the Department of the Interior Building, activists laid down a large black tarp at their feet meant to symbolize an oil spill. In the afternoon, they blew whistles, banged on drums and shouted into bullhorns, imploring Biden to reverse course.

Protesters at the rally also highlighted a United Nations climate change report released Monday that said the world is off pace to meet its climate goals and is on the brink of irreversible damage to ecosystems. Young people, the anti-Willow protesters said, are afraid for their future.

[Willow oil development could pave way for more drilling in Alaska reserve, despite Biden's new limits]

"Young people are savvy. They understand the climate emergency," said Cheryl Barnds with Honor the Earth, who was dressed in a red outfit to signify the planet in flames. "They're counting on adults to stop making it worse and start fixing it. And if they don't, of course, they will be voted out."

The climate activists at the rally said they will do what they can to hold Biden accountable for the decision, including revoking their support for him at the polls come 2024.

"I think the only thing that we're gonna do is we're going to keep fighting, and we're going to show our frustration," said Nadia Nazar, a founder of Zero Hour, a youth-led environmental group. "He's going to have to listen, there's nothing else that he can do. He can't afford to lose us, to lose the youth vote."

Post-approval advocacy

In weeks leading up to the project's approval, opposition to the Willow project surged on social media, especially TikTok. On the platform, young people posted videos urging others to sign anti-Willow petitions and call the White House to block the project.

The effort shone a massive spotlight on Willow in the final days before approval. Videos about Willow trended alongside A-list celebrity gossip, and some 4 million people signed a petition opposing the project.

It was the first time a climate issue was one of the top trending hashtags on TikTok, said climate activism expert Dana Fisher of the Brookings Institution. "It's amazing what they did."

Nonetheless, the Biden administration approved the project just days later amid intense legal and political pressure, including from the Alaska congressional delegation and many Alaska Native groups. Fisher said that without greater on-the-ground advocacy, like strikes or marches, social media was just not a powerful enough tool to sway the administration.

"Posting and liking a video on TikTok, it's hard to make the argument that a policymaker should take that action and make any decisions based on somebody who just shared a shared video," Fisher said.

Since the decision last week, some activists have continued to post videos, but their popularity has declined.

At Tuesday's protest in front of the Interior Department, Ben Goloff, with the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, called the social media effort the "tip of the iceberg."

[Interior Secretary Haaland criticized over Biden administration's 'difficult' choice on Willow project]

"Biden can expect continued outpouring of accountability on social media, on his phone line, on the streets and in terms of the constituents he is looking for to support him moving forward," Goloff said as the recording of Biden issuing his 2020 climate pledges blared in the background.

Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said environmental groups and activists' efforts to spread the word about Willow on social media have reached young audiences and opened up more conversations about the project — including with her own children.

Now that Willow has been approved, though, Moriarty said her focus is on the court challenges and ConocoPhillips' final investment decision.

"Do those protests make a difference?" Moriarty asked about Tuesday's rally in front of the Interior Department. "I don't know if they make a difference on policymakers. They might make a difference in fundraising campaigns for Outside environmental groups."

"But I think we've seen the decision has been made," she said. "And now we wait for the court's evaluations."

Environmental and some Indigenous groups have long worked to stop the Willow project. A handful of organizations successfully challenged the Trump administration's approval of the project, effectively forcing the yearslong permitting process to restart.

Recent court challenges from environmental groups have already succeeded in slowing down construction, but Willow advocates, like Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have expressed confidence that Willow can weather the legal storm.

2024 implications

The White House's decision to approve Willow comes as Biden eyes a second term, and several climate activists said they will remember the project's approval as a betrayal headed into the 2024 election.

The White House has emphasized that Biden championed climate-friendly policies like the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which made historic investments in clean energy. Biden has pledged to set the U.S. on track to reduce net greenhouse gas pollution by 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

"We don't dispute the fact that this president has done more on climate than any other president in American history," the Sierra Club's Manuel said in a phone interview. "But this is a huge mistake that could undercut that legacy and could have some ramifications politically."

"They really owe the environmental community some wins now moving forward, and they have no wiggle room when it comes to future oil and gas projects, because the community's very upset," Manuel said. "Younger voters who really care about climate, who vote on climate, are very upset about this decision."

Stephen Schiff, a retired physicist at the protest, said that Biden lost his vote in light of the Willow decision.

"I will not vote for Biden because he has demonstrated that he is not a man of his word," Schiff said.

Barry Rabe, an environmental policy professor at the University of Michigan, said the Biden administration's Willow decision is unlikely to inspire Democrats to mount a significant primary challenge. He also said Willow probably won't move the needle in oil-producing states, like Alaska, that Biden lost in 2020.

"I'm also not sure that this decision really has that much impact on Biden's reelection prospects assuming that he's renominated," Rabe said. "I doubt this is gonna move the calculus."

In 2020, 60% of young voters and 69% of voters who considered climate change a "serious problem" voted for Biden, according to New York Times exit poll estimates. Fisher, with the Brookings Institution, said Willow opponents on social media leveraged that fact in pushing the administration to block the project.

"The big threat — which was like the only threat that was really coming out of this from the activists on TikTok — was like, 'We're paying attention and we got you into the White House,' and it's absolutely true," Fisher said. "Young people were extremely important in the 2020 election."

"But, you know, it's unclear to me that a blip of attention around TikTok in 2023 in the spring — and we're not really even in the spring — will carry over into enthusiasm or dismay come fall 2024," Fisher said.