Younger, progressive voters have urged the administration to do more on climate—the youth-led Sunrise movement said the Willow decision “abandons millions of young people” ahead of the 2024 election—even as Republicans have continued to hammer Biden for waging a supposed “war” on domestic energy and blamed him for rising gasoline prices.

A series of court challenges, and a closely divided Congress, have also forced Biden’s hand. All members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, including newly elected Democrat Mary Peltola, called for Willow to be approved, citing thousands of new jobs. “We all recognize the need for cleaner energy, but there is a major gap between our capability to generate it and our daily needs,” Peltola wrote in an op-ed on Friday with Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, the Republican senators from Alaska.

Guardian graphic (Source: North Slope Science Initiative) Willow project boundaries are approximate.

Biden himself appears to share this view—in his recent State of the Union speech, the president said “we’re going to need oil for at least another decade,” before adding “and beyond that,” after boos from some lawmakers. This sort of “rhetorical dualism [is] a call for ‘one last fossil bender before America goes green and sober,’” according to a note by analysts at ClearView Energy Partners on Sunday.

Administration officials have stressed that the allowable Willow project is smaller than ConocoPhillips hoped, with three drilling sites allowed instead of the five proposed, and have signaled that the company would have probably prevailed in a court challenge if the project was rejected, given it has held leases in the region for more than 20 years.

The Department of the Interior has also unveiled proposed rules it has framed as a “firewall” against further drilling, with all of the US’s Arctic Ocean off-limits to future oil and gas exploration, as well as the blocking of leases on more than half of the 23 million acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a vast area of the North Slope that contains wildlife considered imperative for the subsistence of local native communities.

This conservation action, appropriately announced in a whiplash-inducing way the day before the Willow decision was made public, shows that Biden “continues to deliver on the most aggressive climate agenda in American history,” the interior department claimed.

“Let’s be clear—this project, which the interior department has substantially reduced in size under considerable legal constraints, won’t stop us from achieving the ambitious clean energy goals president Biden has set,” an administration official said on Monday.

But critics point out that the brutal reality of Earth’s climate system doesn’t recognize political expediency or future good intentions. The International Energy Agency, among others, has warned that no new oil and gas fields can be developed if the world is to avoid breaching temperature thresholds that scientists say will tip the planet into increasingly dangerous heatwaves, flooding, wildfires, and other impacts.

For all of the new wind and solar projects spurred by last year’s climate bill, and Biden’s enthusiastic promotion of electric vehicles, Willow is a sobering reality check—the project will wipe out the emissions cuts provided by all renewable energy developments over the next decade, adding the equivalent of 2 million new gas-guzzling cars to the roads.

“We don’t need to prop up the fossil fuel industry with new, multi-year projects that are a recipe for climate chaos,” as Gore told the Guardian on Friday. “Instead, we must end the expansion of oil, gas, and coal, and embrace the abundant climate solutions at our fingertips.”

Oliver Milman

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