Biden Approves Alaska Oil Project, in Latest Move Toward Center

The president’s backing of the Willow project in northern Alaska is part of a series of moderating maneuvers ahead of an expected re-election bid.

ConocoPhillips via AP, file
An exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project in Alaska. ConocoPhillips via AP, file

The announcement Monday of the Biden administration’s approval of the ConocoPhillips Willow oil project is the latest move in a pre-campaign trend toward the center by a president up for re-election in 2024.

Expected for weeks, the announcement comes alongside an apparent olive branch to environmentalists, many of whom opposed the new drilling project.

Although Mr. Biden has pledged to move away from fossil fuels, this project’s approval fulfills one of the requirements of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which called for the government to approve at least one lease in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico by October 2023.

This drill site will be situated on a tract of land known as the National Petroleum Reserve in northern Alaska and is expected to produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day and create 300 long-term jobs in the area.

In a joint statement, the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, North Slope Borough, and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation thanked the Bureau of Land Management for its decision.

“For our country, advancing Willow is critical for achieving domestic energy independence at a time of global energy instability,” the groups said. “It offers the U.S. an opportunity to set the global standards for environmentally and socially conscious energy resource development projects.” 

The administration also announced that it would be limiting drilling on some 13 million acres of land in the  National Petroleum Reserve and preventing oil exploration on 3 million acres in the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean.

Despite new protections for some land in the area, Senator Whitehouse called the approval of the project “a step backwards.”

“The best way to lower energy prices is to shift to renewables — cheaper in the long run and not subject to Big Oil’s price gouging whims,” Mr. Whitehouse said.

The maneuver is the third time in recent weeks that Mr. Biden has been seen as moving toward the right, a trend that includes his position on the Washington, D.C., criminal justice reform bill and new policies at the southern border.

The bill in D.C. caught attention last week for, among other changes, reductions in the minimum sentences for some offenses, including various violent crimes and carjacking.

After initially saying he would not support Congress overriding the bill — Congress is allowed to review all D.C. legislation — Mr. Biden reversed his position, saying he would sign a resolution of disapproval on the bill if the Senate passed one.

Mr. Biden’s switch in position sparked outrage not only among activists who supported the bill, but among members of his own party in the House, who voted overwhelmingly against a resolution of disapproval in the lower chamber.

Although the D.C. city council withdrew its resolution when it became clear it would be blocked, the Senate still voted 81 to 14 against the bill.

In late February,  the administration also announced new asylum policies, which were seen by some as a concession to conservative critics and by others as a reaction to unprecedented levels of migration.

The new policy would assume ineligibility for those asylum seekers who enter the country illegally, which would make it easier for the government to expel migrants who do not follow the law and encourage others to come via legal channels.

This policy, which is supposed to go into effect in May and expire after two years, is one way for the administration to deal with migration at the border and to be seen as moderating on the issue.

The president’s trend toward the right on energy and climate change, criminal justice, and border security and immigration comes as he positions himself for a re-election campaign announcement.

Although Mr. Biden has not yet announced, the first lady, Jill Biden, told the Associated Press in late February that the only thing left to do was to pick a time and place.


Mr. Payne is a political reporter at The New York Sun. He covers a broad range of topics focusing on New York State and New York City.

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