Due partly to his championing of historic climate legislation, Joe Biden has been hailed as the best environmental president since Richard Nixon (a low bar, you might think, but hear me out). Not just this environmental legacy but also Biden’s political future, however, are now in peril: Since his administration’s approval in March of the Willow Project, an $8 billion oil drilling project on federal land in Alaska, Biden’s ratings among key allies seems to have fallen, with many young voters, per a recent New York Times piece, feeling “angry” and “betrayed.”
Is that fair? Yes and no—because there are two contradictory truths at work when it comes to Willow. First, those outraged over this specific decision, claiming it reverses the administration’s prior successes, are vastly overstating Willow’s impact, and not giving Biden enough credit for his environmental accomplishments thus far. But on the other hand, the Willow approval is in line with Biden’s approach to drilling in general, which is much worse than most people realize.
Biden’s environmental accomplishments are real. He has restored many of the environmental regulations rolled back by the Trump administration. He rejoined the Paris Agreement. He made massive investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles through the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, the biggest piece of climate legislation in U.S. history. He invested $1 billion in helping the global south address climate change and made progress on climate and conservation in many other areas as well.
To many critics, none of that matters anymore. A Data for Progress poll taken in March soon after the Willow approval found that the move had precipitated a 13 percent drop in Biden’s approval ratings among young voters. Primary challenger Marianne Williamson—polling 10 percent in some polls—told me recently that the Willow project “cancels out” all the progress Biden’s administration made with the IRA. Progressive lawmaker Jamaal Bowman has implied the same, saying, “He takes one step forward with the IRA, and two steps back with the Willow Project.”
There are more TikTok accounts dedicated to Willow than one can count, with videos totaling many more than a billion views. One account bears the tagline “Willow Project = Human extinct.” Many are personally focused on the president, like this one showing a picture of Joe Biden’s grinning mug, with the caption, “THERES NO HOPE WERE DOOMED.”
All of this overstates Willow’s impact.
The carbon emissions of Willow do not come close to exceeding those averted by IRA: As David Wallace-Wells pointed out in the New York Times, Willow would generate nine million metric tons yearly—unacceptable in the context of the climate crisis, but only two-tenths of 1 percent of current American emissions. Researchers at Brookings Institution have estimated that by powering a 50 percent increase in investment in renewables, the IRA will reduce our carbon emissions by 6–10 percent over the next decade. There is no math by which Willow cancels out the IRA or represents “two steps back.”
Not all the anger over Willow is about the precise number of carbon emissions. This generation has been politicized on images of the Arctic—pictures of sad polar bears and warnings about the melting ice cap have been part of the political culture all their lives. There is a psychological intensity to the idea of the Arctic, a place almost none of us will ever go, yet want to believe is intact. The word “pristine” is often used in the same sentence as “Arctic,” especially in stories about the Willow Project. We want to believe in this clean, white snowscape, out of sight but always on our minds. The idea of new drilling there feels like a horrendous violation.
But even though Willow isn’t quite as bad as many progressives—especially young people—believe, the philosophy behind the president’s approval of the project is deeply wrongheaded. The administration has pursued a policy of emphasizing alternatives, to reduce demand for fossil fuels, rather than cutting off supply, which is seen as more politically risky. To that end, while Biden has done more to help green energy, green jobs and green business, and for conservation than any U.S. leader in decades, he deserves criticism for letting the fossil fuel industry continue to drill with impunity.
Although Willow’s violation of the pristine Arctic has the greater emotional resonance, the real problem is not one fossil fuel project, but how many others there are. Well before Willow, the president’s permissive attitude toward drilling permits was a scandal. The Biden administration approved 6,430 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands during the first two years in office, outpacing the Trump administration. And Biden also approved a greater proportion of the applications submitted, suggesting that the Trump administration may have been more discriminating in deciding who gets to drill. The emissions from the fossil fuel projects approved during the first two years of the Biden administration alone will result in emissions of more than 800 million tons, the Center for Biological Diversity estimated in January, comparing the impact to that of about 217 coal-fired power plants. These dismal numbers also represent a repeatedly broken promise, given that Biden the candidate said he would end drilling on public lands.
Most of the projects the Biden administration has approved have been in the West, with almost 4,000 in New Mexico and more than 1,000 in Montana. New Mexico residents, the Center for Biological Diversity, and WildEarth Guardians are suing the Biden administration for inadequate environmental review of drilling permits in New Mexico and Wyoming and oil and gas lease sales in New Mexico’s Permian Basin. Stanford University researchers last year found that the Permian Basin, a huge oil production site, is leaking far more methane than previously thought, about 194 metric tons per hour. Because of its greater heat-trapping properties, methane contributes far more to global warming in the short run than carbon.
Willow will not, contra TikTok, lead directly to human extinction, but Biden’s permissive attitude toward new fossil fuel projects is a slow-motion climate catastrophe that deserves criticism and must be changed. The Permian Basin does not have any polar bears, and its landscape doesn’t have the same hold on our imaginations as the pristine Arctic. But there are 90 species of animals and plants that live only in New Mexico. River snakes and sagebrush lizards are not charismatic megafaunas but they are still vital to our world.
The Willow Project by itself does not nullify all the good Biden has done for the planet. But the policy it represents—one in which the administration outdoes Republicans in welcoming the fossil fuel industry to destroy our public lands, our wildlife, and our health—is disastrous. If a sharp drop in his approval ratings among young people helps him to realize that, then perhaps Willow will have been a net positive, after all.