Four ways Biden is boosting fossil fuels — and drawing heat for it
President Biden ran on a platform of slowing the dangerous heating of the planet caused by fossil fuel emissions.
But despite the Democrats’ passage of an ambitious climate investment package last year, Biden has angered many of his core voters — particularly younger ones — by what they view as his continued support for the fossil fuel industry.
In many areas, chiefly his approval of new oil leases and gas export terminals, environmental groups argue that Biden has been a more committed friend to the industry than even his predecessor, former President Trump.
The Hill has reached out to the White House for comment.
Here are four places where Biden has caught fire for prioritizing fossil fuel production just in the last month.
Allowing an Alaska ‘carbon bomb’
In March, the Biden administration greenlit a massive, 30-year oil drilling project on Alaska’s Beaufort Sea.
The ConocoPhillips project will release 576 million barrels of oil, resulting in 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the administration.
That’s approximately the same as two new coal plants burning, or 1.7 million new gas-powered cars, pumping out emissions for the next 30 years, based on EPA data.
In a video posted to Twitter, activist group Climate Defiance said that Biden “committed ecocide” by giving a second approval to Willow, a project initially permitted by the Trump administration.
On Saturday, the group blockaded the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner to protest Biden’s approval of the project.
“We came of age amidst superstorms and fires and crumbling ice shelves,” the group tweeted. “We trusted our President – but he sold us out to fossil fuel CEOs.”
The White House, by contrast, argues that it was threading a needle on Willow: It approved the project in order to win political support for new policies that would put vast swaths of the rest of the Arctic Ocean off limits.
“My strong inclination was to disapprove of [Willow] across the board,” Biden said in March, according to The Hill.
But the president said administration lawyers feared that doing so would likely open the administration to a successful lawsuit from ConocoPhillips — which he implied could threaten further conservation goals.
“I thought it was the better gamble and a hell of a trade off to have the Arctic Ocean, the [Beaufort] Sea and so many other places off limits forever now,” Biden said.
At the time, environmental groups argued that Biden had traded an imminent oil buildout for easily reversed future protections.
“The benefits of these protections can be undone just as quickly by approval of oil and gas projects on public lands,” said Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club.
But the government’s hands were tied, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in March. ConocoPhillips’s existing leases “are decades old, granted by prior administrations. The company has a legal right to those leases.”
“Look, the president kept his word where he can by law,” she said.
Massive drilling lease sales in the Gulf
In March, the Biden administration’s Department of the Interior auctioned off more than 73 million acres of federal Gulf Coast waters as part of Lease Sale 259.
While only a small portion of those waters received bids — about 1.6 million acres — the move, which came on the heels of the Willow decision, angered environmental groups and local communities.
In March, a coalition of local and national environmental groups sued the administration over the sale, which they said would worsen climate change, lead to more air pollution of Gulf communities and cause “significant harm” to the endangered Rice’s whale.
Here, as well, the administration has argued they are boxed in by law.
Part of the price Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) charged for his support of the Inflation Reduction Act, which included climate provisions, was a commitment to hold a number of specific lease sales, such as Lease Sale 259, by March.
But environmental groups have argued that while the Biden administration may have to put leases up for auction, they don’t have to offer up “such a vast area“, according to Earthjustice.
Earthjustice also argued the administration had allowed bidders to skirt environmental review — something that had initially led a D.C. District Court to vacate a previous round of lease sales.
Support across departments for oil and gas exports
In April, the administration also approved a $39 billion Alaska-based gas export project, which ultimately aims to ship liquified natural gas (LNG) from the Arctic to Asia, The Hill reported.
The Department of Energy (DOE) found that environmental concerns raised against the project were “not sufficient” to stop it, though it did add additional environmental procedures for the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation to follow.
The Energy Department noted that its approval is just one step the project faces on a long road to final development. The company developing the project “has not yet reached a final investment decision on whether to construct the project at all,” a spokesperson told The Hill.
“This is not the climate presidency that Joe Biden promised,” Lukas Ross, program manager at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.
“Does the administration intend to rubber-stamp a carbon bomb every month?” Ross added, using a term for a project that could release at least a billion tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.
But the administration believes gas exports are essential to support U.S. allies — and that they can be cleaned up.
“With respect to LNG, we know that our liquefied natural gas exports have been a significant help to our allies,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told Yahoo News in January.
“We want to make sure it’s the cleanest natural gas, which is one of the reasons why … the bipartisan infrastructure [law] is really invested in carbon-capture strategies and storage strategies,” Granholm added.
In 2022, the DOE issued permits for two LNG export terminals in Texas and Louisiana, and a press release took direct aim at concerns over emissions.
“DOE is particularly focused on driving down methane emissions in the oil and gas sector both domestically and abroad,” the agency wrote.
But leading methods of certifying gas emissions may fail to catch climate-warming leaks, which have a huge impact — leaks from the natural gas industry in 2022 heated the planet as much as 900 continuously burning coal plants would have, The Hill reported.
Last November — on the heels of the U.N. climate conference — the administration also approved the nation’s biggest oil export terminal, according to Inside Climate News.
Support for a controversial pipeline
In April, Granholm also threw the Energy Department’s weight behind a controversial pipeline that would connect the fracking fields of West Virginia to central Virginia.
On Tuesday, Manchin introduced a third attempt at a “permitting reform” bill, which would fast track approval for the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) project.
In a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — an independent body that permits gas pipelines — Granholm praised what she framed as MVP’s climate benefits.
“Natural gas — and the infrastructure, such as MVP, that supports its delivery and use — can play an important role as part of the clean energy transition,” Granholm said.
She added that the rise of extreme weather — a euphemism for climate change — had continued to disrupt U.S. energy reserves, making “adequate pipeline and transmission capacity … critical to maintaining energy reliability, availability, and security.”
But Granholm’s entry into the issue was inappropriate and misguided, Tom Cormons, executive director of North Carolina-based grassroots group Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.
Burning fossil fuels was leading to the “extreme weather” Granholm had warned against, Cormons argued.
The U.S. Forest Service also approved the pipeline, in April according to WV News.
Environmental groups have argued that the project will lead to massive disruption of forests and a rise in water pollution as it crosses nearly a thousand waterways.
There is reason to be skeptical of MVP, a federal court found in an April decision throwing out the permit West Virginia had offered the pipeline, The Hill reported.
The state had written its permit assuming only the impacts that would follow if MVP scrupulously followed environmental rules — rather than its actual on-the ground record, the court found.
MVP paid $2.15 million in 2019 to settle environmental damage it caused in Virginia, The Hill reported.
“Without substantive assurance that MVP will comply with those policies, the Department’s sanguine outlook is troubling—especially given MVP’s prior violations,” the panel wrote.
Updated at 10:56 a.m.
For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.