How Biden Got From ‘No More Drilling’ to Backing the Willow Project in Alaska

“I think the White House feels the president has strong climate credentials now, but that he does need to reach out to working class voters in swing states who care about gasoline prices,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate aide in the Clinton administration who now works at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank.

But Mr. Bledsoe said he also thought the administration needed to make a stronger case publicly that the Willow project will not make a large contribution to the climate crisis.

“The problem with climate is not supply, it’s demand,” he said. “The world is awash in oil and other countries will supply the oil if we don’t. The question is, can we reduce demand through substitute technologies? And that’s where the administration has been very strong.”

The burning of oil produced by the Willow project would cause 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to a federal analysis. On an annual basis, that would translate into 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equal to adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year. The United States, the second-biggest polluter on the planet after China, emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

A key factor was the widespread support Willow enjoyed from lawmakers of both parties, including Mary Peltola, a Democrat and the state’s first Alaska Native elected to Congress; labor unions; and most Indigenous groups in Alaska.

In 2021 the Biden administration defended a Trump-era decision to allow the Willow project to go forward. Last year, it issued a new draft environmental statement that signaled support for Willow and in February, a federal analysis telegraphed that the administration would look for ways to approve a limited version of the project.

When advocates met with Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary, in late February in a last-ditch attempt to persuade her to block the permits, she choked up twice and explained that her agency often had to make difficult choices, according to several people who were present. Ms. Haaland had fought the Willow project when she served as a member of Congress before joining the administration.

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