President Biden has to make a decision about oil licensing: is he breaking his ‘green’ election promise?

With the introduction of his – much criticized in Europe – Inflation Reduction Act President Joe Biden gave US climate policy a billion-dollar boost last year. However, environmentalists now fear his government is on the verge of breaking a key “green” election promise.

During the 2020 campaign, the Democrat pledged that the US under him would not issue any new oil or gas licenses on federal land. This month it will become clear what that promise is worth, when Washington makes a decision about the exploitation of the so-called Willow project in Alaska.

In this oil field in the far north of this westernmost state, energy company ConocoPhillips could pump up to 180,000 barrels per day. Although that is only 1.5 percent of the current total US oil production, it would be Alaska’s largest new project in decades. Exploiting it would create an estimated 2,500 jobs, of which 300 would be permanent. A portion of the proceeds will also flow back to Alaska as tax.

There is broad support for the project in the state itself. Both Republican and Democratic representatives from Alaska are calling for ConocoPhillips to be given the green light. The same goes for most representatives of the local Yup’ik population in the area – although these Native Americans also include some outspoken opponents, the US news agency AP reported after a tour last month.

Resistance from climate activists

The political and social opposition to the Willow project comes mainly from other Democrats in Washington and from environmental groups, which include calling on supporters to call the White House with criticism of the project.

Climate activists believe that this will make the US dependent on fossil fuels for at least another thirty years, while climate change will require an accelerated weaning from that addiction. The Biden government has set itself the goal of reducing CO by half by 20302 emissions by switching from gas, oil and coal to ‘clean’ energy production from sources such as sun and wind.

Read also: What’s in the US Climate Law?

However, Biden is under pressure from the Republicans, who attacked him hard last year over the high gasoline prices in the US. These were mainly the result of the war in Ukraine and the turbulent economic recovery after the end of the pandemic, but were directly linked by the opposition to Biden’s efforts to accelerate the American energy transition.

On the contrary, left-wing politicians and environmental groups complain that the government is not going far enough. For example, to get his climate action through Congress, and after legal battles with Republican-governed states, Biden had to abandon his opposition to new drilling licenses on fields already awarded to companies. In his first year of government, 2021, the number of drilling licenses even exploded: a result of backlogs that had to be cleared from the term of his predecessor Trump. In fiscal year 2022, the number of new licenses fell sharply, but activists still believe that the number of new licenses has been overspent.

Solomon judgment

A battle of directions is said to be raging within the federal government over the Willow decision, which is expected at the beginning of March. The responsible Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has already issued a positive opinion on three of the five drilling options proposed by ConocoPhillips. However, the Ministry of the Interior, under which the BLM falls, again expressed its “significant concerns”.

Proponents of the project fear that Biden will eventually deliver some kind of Solomon’s judgment. For example, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) said he feared that Biden “will try to eat it both ways”. This can be done by, for example, granting a license, but attaching such strict requirements to it that it is not profitable to start drilling.

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