Interior Secretary Deb Haaland defended her department’s approval of the controversial Willow oil project on Friday, saying that despite President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to end further drilling on federal land, “we’re not going to close the faucet and say we are not drilling anymore.”
Speaking at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference, Haaland said the Biden administration is “following the science and the law when it comes to everything we do, and that includes the oil and gas leases considered by his agency, which oversees EE. public lands and waters.
Despite Biden’s promise, “We are not going to say that we are not going to use gas and oil. That is not the reality,” Haaland said. “So we’re doing the best we can.”
Haaland’s comments came after the administration faced heavy criticism from some of its strongest supporters, especially young climate activists, after Interior approved the $8 billion Willow project on March 13. Oil giant ConocoPhillips’ massive drilling plan could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a year. day on the oil-rich North Slope of Alaska.
Leaders of major environmental organizations and indigenous groups had pleaded with Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, to use her authority to block the drilling project, which they say runs counter to Biden’s agenda to halve emissions. of planet-warming greenhouse gases by 2030. The groups call Willow a “carbon bomb” and have mounted a #StopWillow social media campaign that has been viewed hundreds of millions of times.
Haaland, who opposed Willow when she served in Congress, joked Friday that as interior secretary, “I don’t often have personal feelings.” Still, Haaland’s views seemed self-evident. She did not sign the clerical order approving the bill, leaving it to her deputy, Tommy Beaudreau, and she declined multiple opportunities to say she personally supported the decision.
Responding to questions from hundreds of assembled journalists, Haaland said Willow’s decision was offset by the approval of a series of clean energy projects, including a recent plan to produce “solar power from Arizona’s deserts for communities all over the world.” West”. ‘
“We are all in a climate crisis, so we are taking that part very seriously,” he said.
In an online video posted 10 hours after the March 13 decision was made public, Haaland said she and Biden, both Democrats, believe the climate crisis “is the most pressing issue of our lifetime.”
On Friday, Haaland called Willow “a very long, complicated and difficult decision to make,” noting that ConocoPhillips has had long-standing leases to drill for oil at the site, in the Washington National Petroleum Reserve. Alaska.
“You know, existing legal rights are one thing in this country. And so we have to honor them in some respects. What we’re really trying to do is make it smaller, right, to protect stakeholders and do everything we can to help make the situation more favorable for wildlife and ecosystems in Alaska.”
The final approval reflects a substantially smaller project than the one originally proposed by ConocoPhillips and includes a commitment from the Houston-based oil company to cede nearly 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares) of leased land that will no longer be developed.
Biden said last month that he had “a strong inclination to disapprove” of Willow, but received legal advice that the oil company could win in court. Instead, his team forced concessions that included conserving millions of acres in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
“So I thought it was a better bet, and a great trade-off, to have the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea and so many other places off limits (to oil drilling) forever now,” he said on March 24 during a visit to Canada. “What I really want to do … is preserve significant amounts of Alaska’s land and sea forever.”
Asked if he wishes Biden had spoken more about Willow Haaland, he said: “Of course that’s a question for President Biden.”
Activists said on Friday that they were not satisfied with Haaland’s response.
“The Biden administration is dependent on voters under the age of 30. That’s just a fact. And if they continue to greenlight disastrous fossil fuel projects and unnecessary lease sales, they risk losing a key constituency in 2024,” said Cassidy DiPaola, a spokeswoman for Fossil Free Media, a group that opposes oil and other fuels. fossils.