• On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden promised to ban all new oil drilling on federal land.
  • He just violated that pledge by approving one of the largest-ever drilling projects on that land.
  • Activists and many Democratic lawmakers are condemning his decision to approve the Alaska project.

President Joe Biden has made fighting climate change a central pillar of his presidency. He’s promised — and the White House says he’s delivered — more to protect the climate than any other US president.

But he just broke a key campaign pledge to stop all new oil drilling on federal land in a major way.

On Monday, the Biden administration officially approved one of the largest-ever drilling projects on federal land: the $8 billion ConocoPhillips Willow oil project, which is expected to produce more than 600 million barrels of crude oil over three decades in Alaska’s North Slope. While the administration has previously been forced by the courts or Congress to approve some oil and gas leasing on federal lands, Biden has rarely violated his campaign promise of “no more drilling on federal lands, period” without being compelled to do so.

Progressive lawmakers who’ve championed the president’s pro-climate initiatives quickly condemned the Willow project approval on Monday, some citing his apparently discarded promises.

“This decision not only leaves an oil stain on the administration’s climate accomplishments and the President’s commitment not to permit new oil and gas drilling on federal land, but slows our progress in the fight for a more livable future and puts it in harm’s way to the neighboring Native Village of Nuiqsut and the Arctic landscape,” Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and leader on climate issues, said in a statement.

Climate activists panned the project, which will occur inside the 23-million acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

“The Biden Administration and Interior Department promised to prioritize climate action, environmental justice and Indigenous sovereignty,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, a writer and climate activist, told Insider in an email on Monday. “The approval of the Willow Project contradicts all of those commitments.”

Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern University, told Insider the Biden administration “is undermining its own climate justice goals” and “caving into pressure from corporate interests.”

“Fossil fuel phaseout is an urgent global priority – it is shameful that the United States is a laggard, rather than a leader, in this collective global challenge,” she said.

A Biden administration official insisted that the government’s hands were tied by leases granted to ConocoPhillips by prior administrations. The official noted that the administration is limiting drilling to three of the five proposed sites and that the company will give up 68,000 acres of existing leases.

“The company has a legal right to those leases,” the official told Insider in a statement. “The Department’s options are limited when there are legal contracts in place. Courts would not allow a full denial of the project.”

Fossil fuel lobbyists and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Alaska have long pushed the administration to back the lucrative project. Most Alaskan Native communities also support it.

Likely in part to dampen the wave of backlash the administration expected to receive over the Willow approval, it also just announced sweeping environmental protections in the region. These include banning future oil and gas leasing in the US Arctic Ocean and protecting the majority – 13 million acres – of Alaska’s Petroleum Reserve from future drilling.

Despite these protections, the Willow project is expected to come with significant environmental costs, aside from contributing to planet-warming emissions. The Interior Department’s own assessment found concerning impacts on fresh water and the region’s rare wildlife.

In a letter earlier this month, two dozen Democratic members of Congress urged Biden not to approve the project, calling it inconsistent with his “commitments to combat the climate crisis and promote environmental justice.”

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan called the Willow approval a “disastrous decision” that “will have devastating consequences on our planet, frontline communities, and wildlife.”

Former Vice President Al Gore called it “recklessly irresponsible” and the Center for American Progress, a major Biden-aligned think tank, called it a “carbon disaster” that “threatens to negate all of that promised progress on renewables.”

March 13, 2023: This story has been updated with comments from a Biden administration official.

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