Energy & Environment

Deb Haaland in difficult spot after Biden approves Alaska drilling

President Biden has put Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a difficult spot by approving a controversial Alaskan oil-drilling project that the former New Mexico lawmaker opposed when she served in Congress.   

Biden’s decision to proceed with the Willow Project will allow ConocoPhillips to produce up to 180,00 barrels a day at its peak, which a ConocoPhillips spokesperson said should be within the first few years of startup. The project is expected to produce 576 million barrels of oil over 30 years.

The president and supporters of the project say Willow will create thousands of jobs in Alaska and help keep the U.S. energy independent, an increasingly important notion for Biden ahead of an expected 2024 reelection bid likely to take place against a backdrop of elevated gas prices aggravated by the Russia-Ukraine war.   

But the project will also produce an estimated 239 million metric tons of carbon emissions over the next 30 years, which is equivalent to driving 51 million cars for a year. 

That’s why Haaland, the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, opposed the project when she was a member of Congress.

And it’s why the decision to approve Willow undercuts her standing and puts her in a tough spot going forward — especially with groups opposed to the project, who believe their lead defender within the administration was just big-footed.

“It seems clear that the White House decided to override Secretary Haaland, as well as many other career staff who believe that this project should not have been approved throughout the department,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing the federal government over the approval.  “I think the Biden White House is forcing them to take the blame and swallow a decision they did not agree with, for very political reasons.”

Haaland likely knew she could be in a tough spot with Willow as early as her confirmation hearing in 2021, when she was asked about her opposition to the project by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a prominent supporter. 

Murkowski specifically asked Haaland if she would allow it to proceed as Interior secretary.  

“I think being a [Cabinet] secretary is far different from being a member of Congress,” Haaland said at the time.   

Murkowski was the only Republican on the Senate Energy Committee to vote for Haaland’s confirmation.   

Interior did approve the Willow Project, but that approval does not show Haaland’s name.   

Instead, the No. 2 official at Interior, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, an Alaskan nominated for his post after Murkowski and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) signaled they would block Biden’s first choice, signed the approval.   

Haaland made her first public comment on the approval Monday evening, saying in a video posted to Twitter that the decision was a “difficult and complex” one that Biden inherited from former President Trump.

The Interior Department’s public announcement of the signoff also pointedly deemphasized the approval itself. Instead, it focused on the department’s decision to reduce the area on which Conoco may drill — a battle won in a war that was lost.

Interior also announced new protections from drilling for a broad swathe of the Arctic over the weekend as rumors swirled that the Willow approval was imminent, an indication the department also senses the political minefield and is seeking to limit the damage.   

Environmental groups aren’t publicly upset with Haaland and say they interpret the fact that Beaudreau signed the approval suggests their longtime ally wasn’t in favor of the decision.  

The fact that Beaudreau signed it “tells, in my mind, that Deb Haaland was not on board with this decision to some extent,” Hartl said. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who, like Murkowski, has been a longtime backer of the Willow Project, suggested Wednesday that Haaland’s involvement in negotiations had been minimal.    

“Deb Haaland was not in the loop on this at all,” Sullivan told reporters Wednesday. “She was the official in the federal government least involved. And in part, I’m sure, because she was so adamantly against it as a congresswoman. But whatever they’re saying, she had nothing to do with it.”   

An Interior spokesperson declined to comment on Sullivan’s specific remarks but sharply contested the idea that Haaland had been removed from the decision-making process.    

“The Secretary has been actively involved in Willow discussions from the beginning,” the spokesperson said. “In addition to traveling to Alaska and holding stakeholder meetings in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Utqiagvik, she has met with Alaska Native leaders on both sides of this issue multiple times in D.C. and virtually, as well as conservation and other groups, and members of Congress.” 

Either way, the decision would appear to undercut Haaland, suggesting she was overruled and raising questions about her influence in the administration.   

“[We’re] very much aware of the legal battles and the complexities that may have strong-armed those who do want to take more progressive actions on the climate,” Jade Begay, director of policy and advocacy at the Native American advocacy group NDN Collective, told The Hill in an interview.   

There were influential groups pushing Biden to OK the project, including Alaska’s congressional delegation, the American-Canadian union Laborers’ International Union of North America and a group of Alaska Native state leaders who recently met with Haaland. 

And with the 2024 election approaching, Biden has shown signs of tacking right, both with the Willow announcement and with his support of a bill to override changes to Washington, D.C.’s criminal code.

With the crunch resulting from the invasion of Ukraine, “we got a kick in the energy reality teeth last year,” said Frank Maisano, who represents energy clients at the law and government relations firm Bracewell LLP, “and it’s just evident that we can’t run away from fossil fuels as quickly or as much as environmentalists want us to.” 

“The Biden administration has had to moderate and unfortunately that puts them in a tough spot,” Maisano added.

Supporters of Haaland say that while the Willow approval was a major loss and a blow to morale, they still think she can be an effective ally within the administration.   

“Both things can be true: we still hold her in great regard but this Willow decision, they got it completely wrong and I think a lot of people at the agency know it,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program.   

“It’s the White House’s choice of how they want to proceed here,” Hartl said. “Do they want to keep handcuffing Interior because they feel like Lisa Murkowski is more important than the future of our planet? That’s their decision.”   

Rachel Frazin contributed.

Updated at 9:33 a.m.

Tags Alaska Biden Dan Sullivan Deb Haaland Deb Haaland Joe Biden Lisa Murkowski Murkowski Willow Project

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