So far in his administration, President Joe Biden’s greatest steps toward serious emissions reductions have been aspirational, including his pledge in April at a virtual climate summit to halve U.S. emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. With green infrastructure, too, the plans are far more ambitious than what the president is able to manage with a Senate controlled by an Energy chairman with “coal and oil and gas” on his mind. Though Biden is pushing for $50 billion for climate-resilience projects as part of his infrastructure bill — which is functioning effectively as his climate bill — he has only so far been able to secure $1 billion in FEMA funds preparing for natural disasters worsened by climate change, a small concession given that storms and wildfires caused almost $100 billion in damage in 2020.
Though Biden has talked the talk in the first four months of his presidency, he walked the walk in the wrong direction on Wednesday. According to the New York Times, his administration filed a brief in the U.S. District Court for Alaska defending the Trump administration’s approval of a multibillion-dollar drilling project in the poorly named National Petroleum Reserve, which borders the Arctic Ocean. The effort, known as Willow, will be conducted by ConocoPhillips and could produce up to 100,000 barrels of oil every day for the next 30 years, if completed. Construction was paused in February for the court to hash out its decision.
Though environmental groups sued to block the project, which they claimed did not take into account the impact that drilling would have on polar bears and caribou in north Alaska — or the impact that some 1,095,000,000 barrels of oil would have on global warming — the Biden administration is arguing in favor of ConocoPhillips and their predecessors in the White House. Though Biden has reversed several lax environmental rules put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department under Trump, the Interior Department under Biden told the Times in a statement that the application “complied with the environmental rules in place at the time” of the application.
As the paper notes, the decision put the Biden administration in a bind, forcing them to choose to “decline to defend oil drilling and hinder a lucrative project that conflicts with its climate policy or support a federal decision backed by the state of Alaska, some tribal nations, unions, and key officials, including Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican senator seen as a potential ally of the administration in an evenly split Senate.”
Regardless of this thicket of interests, Biden’s top-line in office has been taking emissions reductions seriously. Such a step backward — he previously put a temporary moratorium on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which neighbors the petroleum reserve — could have implications for the nation’s attempt at returning to a position of leadership on international climate goals.
The timing is particularly inopportune. Last week, the International Energy Agency cautioned heads of state that they must stop investing in fossil-fuel extraction to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. And at the biennial Arctic Council meeting of nations involved in the far-northern region, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reassured the other nations that the U.S. was “committed to advancing a peaceful Arctic region where cooperation prevails on climate [and] the environment.” Supporting drilling near the Alaskan shores of the Arctic certainly defies last week’s pledge. Defending a project associated with the name of the former president who trashed American commitments could also tarnish Biden’s attempt clean up the country’s reputation on climate leadership.
The bad timing continues. Earlier on Wednesday, the Netherlands showed the world what actual action on multinational drilling firms looks like: In the first-ever ruling of its kind holding an oil company legally liable for its role in the climate crisis, the Hague District Court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must radically cut its carbon emissions to 45 percent of 2019 levels by 2030. While legally binding only in the small, lowland nation, it could set a precedent for future courts considering climate-change cases — at least in countries where the executive branch isn’t arguing in favor of multibillion-dollar drilling projects on protected land.
As for the immediacy of climate change in the far north, the shortsightedness of the Willow project, and the avarice of ConocoPhillips, the Texas-based firm has an idea for how to keep the melting permafrost frozen just long enough to tap into it. If the court rules in its favor, ConocoPhillips will install “chillers” to stave off the effects of global warming on the site of its oil wells.