When Elise Joshi was at the White House last year, her eyes welled with happy tears as President Joe Biden hosted thousands of supporters to celebrate groundbreaking legislation targeting climate change.
“In that moment, I felt a lot of hope that the administration was listening to us,” said Joshi, a California college student who is a leader of Gen-Z for Change, a coalition of young activists on social media.
Now Joshi is planning to return to Washington, but for a very different reason. She’s outraged that administration officials approved the Willow project, a large-scale oil drilling proposal in Alaska, and she’s organizing demonstrations with compatriots from around the country.
Joshi’s pivot underscores the political fallout that Biden is facing over Willow and the tension between honoring his promises on climate change and the nation’s energy needs.
The president made fighting global warming a central part of his agenda, and White House officials are quick to defend efforts to put the United States on track for steep emissions reductions in the coming years.
But the decision on Willow has alienated supporters, particularly young activists predisposed to skepticism about compromise and incrementalism, at the same time Biden is planning to announce his campaign for reelection.
There is disappointment. There is anger. There is frustration,” said Lori Lodes, the executive director of Climate Power, an environmental advocacy group aligned with the administration.
But, she added, “what’s happened on climate in the past year is nothing short of revolutionary,” including hundreds of billions of financial incentives for clean energy in last year’s legislation, and Republicans have refused to confront the problem of global warming.
When it comes to the 2024 election, “I don’t really think there’s a choice,” Lodes said. “If you care about the climate, there’s not a choice.”
White House officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, acknowledged the indignation over Willow, which became a focal point for activism in recent weeks. They emphasized that ConocoPhillips has held leases in that area of Alaska for decades, strengthening the company’s legal right to drill.
“The president kept his word where he can by law,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday, adding that Biden “has done more on climate change than any other president in history.” Environmental groups already have sued in a renewed effort to block Willow.
Regulators focused on paring down the project’s footprint during the approval process. The final decision includes three drill sites, down from the originally proposed five, and the company relinquished about 68,000 acres of other leases as part of the deal.
Administration officials also paired the announcement with a conservation plan that bars drilling in 3 million acres of the Arctic Ocean and seeks new rules on 13 million acres of Alaska land.
While the White House said the legal issues largely drove the Willow decision, there were other factors at work.
Gas prices spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine, a reminder of how global energy markets can become weaponized in times of conflict. Biden responded by urging companies to produce more oil in the United States. Willow could generate 180,000 barrels a day once it becomes operational in the coming years.
More pressure came from the Alaska congressional delegation, which includes two Republican senators and one Democratic representative. Sen. Dan Sullivan told Fox News that he pressed Biden on how he could justify blocking Willow when the administration also lifted sanctions to allow oil imports from Venezuela, which Sullivan called “one of the most polluting places to produce oil anywhere in the world.”
“They never have an answer to that question,” he said. “I think that was part of the calculus here.”
White House officials said the Willow project won’t prevent the U.S. from meeting Biden’s ambitious goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and a recent government study said the country will be able to produce 80% of its electricity without fossil fuels by 2030.
But there’s been outrage on social media, sometimes drowning out the administration’s own message.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s video explaining the Willow decision was viewed more than 100,000 times on Twitter as of Thursday afternoon.
But Joshi’s post on TikTok, which described Biden as having “just slapped young people in the face,” was viewed more than 860,000 times.
A TikTok video by environmentalist Alex Haraus was viewed more than 270,000 times.
“What the hell man?” he said, directly addressing Biden. “You approved Willow. The one thing that millions of people wrote in asking you not to do over the last three weeks?”
Near the end, Haraus said, “The youth vote is not a given if they keep doing things like this.”
Christy Goldfuss, the chief policy impact officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the problem for Biden is that other efforts to reduce emissions, such as raising vehicle mileage standards, have not received the same attention as Willow.
“We’ve seen time and time again that the public has not absorbed the enormity of what Biden has done on climate so far,” she said. “This is a very high profile project, and he is suffering from a lack of enthusiasm. If he indeed announces that he’s going to run for reelection, that enthusiasm is the foundation for the energy that he needs to win.”
Since taking office, Biden canceled a permit for the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, effectively ending the project, and he has placed more land off-limits to development.
Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, said some environmentalists were already frustrated by Biden’s decisions to allow other oil projects, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Line 3 project in the Upper Midwest.
“These are open wounds, and (Willow’s approval) just adds to it,” she said.
A majority of Democratic voters in the 2022 election across age groups said they were “very” concerned about the effects of climate change on their communities, according to AP VoteCast, a sweeping survey of the midterm electorate.
In an Associated Press-NORC poll from February, most Democrats said they approved of the way Biden is handling his job as president in general and how he’s handling climate change specifically. But the youngest Democrats, ages 18 through 34, were less favorable on both marks.
White House officials said there’s inevitable friction with activists, who always push for more urgent measures. But they said the goal was to keep the largest tent possible when it comes to climate change, including labor unions, environmental groups and others key players.
Biden has not spoken publicly about the Willow decision, which was announced as Washington was racing to prevent a nationwide financial crisis after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.
He sat down last week with Kal Penn, an actor who worked in the White House under President Barack Obama, for an interview that aired on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
Penn noted that with Biden responsible for screening oil projects, then “what would you say to those young people who want you to continue to be their champion but might not think that you’re going far enough or fast enough on climate?”
Biden said “it’s a matter of transitioning, but it’s not like you can cut everything off immediately.”
Penn responded by saying “you obviously understand the existential threat that young people feel when it comes to climate.”
The interview aired on Monday night, several hours after the Willow decision was announced. Penn revisited the topic in his show on Tuesday night, playing a clip of Biden’s campaign promise of “no more drilling on federal lands, period — period, period period.”
Penn amended Biden’s promise — “period, period, period, comma” — as he talked about the drilling project, and the audience booed.
Biden will have another chance to make the case for his record when he hosts a conservation summit at the Interior Department on Tuesday.
Outside the building will be activists demanding that he stop Willow.
“I did not think this is how these events would unfold,” Joshi said. “It’s a little sad.”
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.
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