The Willow Oil Project Isn’t a Betrayal, Biden Was Never on Our Side

Image by Bureau of Land Management California.

“Climate change is already ravaging the world … It’s not a hypothetical; it’s not a hypothetical threat.  It’s destroying people’s lives and livelihoods and doing it every single day.” – President Joe Biden

Yesterday, the Biden administration approved ConocoPhillip’s enormous $8 billion Willow oil project on federally-owned land in Alaska. If the drilling plan is able to overcome forthcoming legal challenges, the massive oil development could produce 180,000 barrels of crude per day over 30 years. In other words, more CO2 to come. Lots of it.

“Approving the Willow Project is an unacceptable departure from President Biden’s promises to the American people on climate and environmental justice,” said Lena Moffitt, executive director of Evergreen Action.

The problem, however, is not that Biden let us down — he was never on our side, to begin with.

The following report was first published in April 2022, when it was clear Biden’s camp had pulled a fast one on climate-conscious voters.


It ought to be clear by now that Biden’s commitment to combating climate change comes with some brutal caveats. As oil prices have spiked, as inflation continues to strangle the economy, and as Putin’s monstrous war in Ukraine rages on, Biden has willingly bucked a central campaign promise to end oil exploration on federal lands. But the fact is, he kicked his hollow climate pledge long ago.

As Biden limped along the campaign trail, he laid out an ambitious plan to ban all new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters on his first day in office. When that day arrived, Biden signed an executive order asking the Dept. of Interior to “pause” new oil and gas leases to “to the extent possible”. Apparently, it wasn’t all that possible. Instead, Biden’s Dept. of Interior quickly and quietly approved over 3,500 drilling permits in the twelve months that followed, more than any of Trump’s first three years in office.

As the national media focused on vaccines and the raging pandemic, there was scant news in Biden’s early days of his capitulation to the oil and gas cartel. While Big Green organizations like the Sierra Club lavished the administration with praise for canceling Keystone XL and blocking fossil fuel exploration in Alaska’s ANWR, Biden was simultaneously supporting another tar sands pipeline known as Line 3 that is set to tear through Native lands and sensitive watersheds in Minnesota. He also pushed to open up 80 million acres of waters in the Gulf of Mexico for oil leases, which was later blocked by a federal judge, who admonished the plan, stating that the administration did not take into account the toll new drilling operations in the Gulf would have on the climate.

Biden, much like the former Obama administration, has been happy to pay lip service to global warming, claiming he is fully committed to fighting for the climate, publically committing to end oil and gas development on public lands by 2035. Yet in practice, it’s been a contrasting reality. Now, however, the charade is officially over, and Biden is openly pressuring drillers to make good on their plans to exploit our natural resources.

“The oil and gas industry has millions of acres leased … they could be drilling right now, yesterday, last week, last year,” Biden asserted in early March as Russia invaded Ukraine and gas prices shot up. “They are not using them for production now. That’s their decision.”

Biden, whose campaign pocketed over $1.6 million from oil and gas donors during his bid for the White House, has received praise for pushing to re-instate Obama-era drilling standards for the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. It’s a tactic the Democrats have perfected: give environmentalists a token to fend them off while stabbing them in the back when they are in retreat. Indeed, it was the hallmark of the Obama years, where he oversaw a massive expansion of offshore drilling, cheered on the fracking boom, and initiated a 60% increase in oil production on federally-manged lands.

Aside from putting a stop to future permits, Biden, if he were actually serious about tackling greenhouse gas emissions, could place a moratorium on all current drilling operations that the Dept. of Interior controls, citing their negative climate impacts. Instead, however, Biden is propagating the myth that increased drilling will immediately help decrease the cost of gas at the pump. But the oil supply chain is global, and the markets are not controlled by the White House or altered dramatically by drilling on public lands.

The majority of oil and petroleum products in the US consumed are transported from Canada, nearly 4 million barrels a day. Another, 750,000 barrels come from Mexico, 700,000 barrels per day from Russia before the war broke out, and 695,000 are shipped from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. The US, which burns 20% of the world’s oil and is now a net exporter of oil, produced 12 million barrels a day in December and is projected to increase that amount without additional permits being approved. Regardless, it takes up to a year for any new operations to even impact daily output, and output is already very high. In short, gas prices are not dependent on domestic oil production.

Give it to the Democrats to squander a perfect opportunity to revolutionize transportation infrastructure by promoting clean mass transit, and bikeable and walkable communities. The EPA estimates that vehicles account for the majority of carbon emissions in the US at 29%.

If Biden were serious about combating climate change, he would work to incentivize people to get out of their gas-guzzling vehicles by giving them reasons to do so. There are many tools at Biden’s disposal, from tax breaks for the car-less, free public transportation, and tax breaks for companies whose workers carpool or don’t drive to work. No federal funds should go to rebuilding the country’s roads and bridges unless those streets and highways begin to include safe lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. A focused reconstruction of our urban corridors to increase foot traffic and mass transit should also be initiated at the federal level.

It’s evident we are not going to drill our way out of high gas prices, nor are we going to put the brakes on climate change by burning more fossil fuels. The Democrats know this, of course, they are simply betting that voters don’t care enough to push back, using high gas prices as cover and the war in Ukraine as an excuse to keep the oil flowing.

This leads to a far more important and pressing issue. The US, with Biden at the helm, is not anywhere near meeting the modest goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, which has set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

Will we ever reach this reduction? Not likely, and especially not given the administration’s insistence that more oil should be drained from our already imperiled public lands, which only exacerbates the unfathomable trouble we are in.

JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.