The Biden administration’s decision to approve a controversial oil project in Alaska is exacerbating tensions with progressives, who have been critical of recent administration moves toward the right.
The administration on Monday approved the Willow Project, a 30-year oil drilling project in Alaska that would produce 576 million barrels of oil and spur the equivalent of 239 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifetime.
Both left-wing activists and Capitol Hill progressives blasted the decision, saying it would be a disaster for the changing climate. The emissions the project is expected to produce are the equivalent of what would be produced from driving 51 million cars for a year.
“From what I can see from all environmentally-minded voters, this feels like a betrayal,” Natalie Mebane, the climate campaign director at Greenpeace USA, said.
“It feels like he’s suppressing his own voters right now,” Mebane added.
Some Democrats fear the move could dampen left-wing enthusiasm for Biden.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said on a call with reporters that “it’s hard to imagine this not having that effect.”
Huffman also joined fellow progressive lawmakers Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) in blasting the decision in a joint statement.
“The Biden administration has committed to fighting climate change and advancing environmental justice—today’s decision to approve the Willow project fails to live up to those promises,” they said.
The decision to approve the Willow Project comes on the heels of other moves that have rankled progressives, including Biden’s support for a Republican resolution to overturn a Washington, D.C., effort to reduce penalties for certain crimes.
The administration has also reportedly considered reinstating separations of migrant families at the border — echoing a controversial policy from the era of former President Trump.
“He seems to be doing this run to the right to appease what he feels is this lost base of independents that maybe will like that,” Mebane said, adding that this may reduce trust from core supporters.
Opponents of the Willow Project decision are calling it a political misstep in addition to lambasting its climate impacts, citing enthusiasm from young, left-wing voters as electorally important in the years to come.
“The younger generations have really been the largest voting bloc to save the Democratic Party,” in recent years, said Michele Weindling, the electoral director at the progressive Sunrise Movement. “If we want to see the same thing turn out in 2024, particularly in battleground states, the Democratic Party needs to give people something to vote for and we really need to see Biden be a lot more bold when it comes to fighting the climate crisis.”
“The people who are obsessed with drilling, and oil and gas are never going to be excited about a president like Biden, and it’s really a mistake to be appealing to that constituency,” Weindling said.
The 2022 election saw the second-highest youth turnout for a midterm election in 30 years according to an estimate from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
In 2020, youth turnout increased by 11 percentage points compared to 2016, the center found.
In the weeks leading up to the Willow Project’s approval, opposition fomented on social media, with #StopWillow recently trending on TikTok.
Asked to respond to the critiques, an administration official cited legal constraints, since ConocoPhillips — the company behind the Willow Project — has had leases in place for decades.
The official noted the administration reduced the size of the project, and said that it does not prevent the U.S. from achieving President Biden’s clean energy goals.
The administration has said that it hopes to cut U.S. emissions at least in half by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
While Biden’s move may have further alienated progressive voters, opposition also goes beyond the party’s farthest left flank. Mainstream Democrats – including members of Congress — have also criticized the administration’s move.
“This is a step backwards. The best way to lower energy prices is to shift to renewables,” tweeted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D- R.I.).
“Willow is not just about protecting the fragile Arctic and one of the world’s last great intact ecosystems, it’s about trying to stop runaway global warming from burdening future generations,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in a written statement.
Still, progressives said that there are ways in which the Biden administration can still prove that it is committed to addressing climate change, including by declaring a climate emergency.
“Declaring a climate emergency and using the utmost of his power to make changes around that is a start and is what we’re going to need to see in order to feel like we can believe in him,” said Weindling, with the Sunrise movement.
Zack Budryk contributed.