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Demonstrators protest against the Biden administration's approval of the Willow oil-drilling project in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2023. (AP) Demonstrators protest against the Biden administration's approval of the Willow oil-drilling project in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2023. (AP)

Demonstrators protest against the Biden administration's approval of the Willow oil-drilling project in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2023. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher April 13, 2023

If Your Time is short

  • President Joe Biden has signed laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act that take major steps to reduce carbon emissions. But in March, he made two moves that pave the way for more oil drilling.

  • Environmentalists were angered but, to at least some extent, Biden was legally obligated to make the moves.

  • The Inflation Reduction Act’s provisions for reducing greenhouse gases are expected to far outweigh the emissions from the additional drilling.

President Joe Biden greenlighted an $8 billion drilling project in Alaska, triggering a storm of denunciation from environmentalists. Less than three weeks later, he put up for auction 73 million acres of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leases.

Biden’s Alaska decision contradicted his "no more drilling on federal lands" campaign promise. That approval and the auction, the first step toward drilling, also fueled a perception that he shrunk from fighting climate change.

Both of Biden’s moves were made in March, the same month in which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for the world to immediately move away from fossil fuels. "There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all," it said.

Allowing more fossil fuel development — through the Alaska project and through an drilling permit approvals  increase that could lead to more projects — will increase greenhouse gas emissions. But to at least some extent, Biden was legally obligated to make the moves.

The increased emissions from drilling are expected to be far outweighed by the emission reductions from climate change initiatives in laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act. 

The projects: 30 years of drilling, more leasing

Oil giant ConocoPhillips ​​estimates that its Willow Reservoir project in Alaska will involve sinking up to 199 wells across three drilling sites for up to 30 years. The drilling is expected to produce about 1.5% of total U.S. oil production. 

Environmental groups condemned Biden’s approval, claiming the project would release 239 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. 

A vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is driven by greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by human activity.

Biden’s lease sale opened up to auction 73 million acres of federal waters, though companies bought leases for only 1.67 million acres.

Why Biden approved the projects

Biden and his administration defended the Willow approval by saying that leases ConocoPhillips had are essentially contracts, and that refusing to allow the drilling could trigger legal action resulting in fines on the government.

Attorney Kassie Siegel, senior counsel of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups suing the federal government over Willow, said the Biden administration should have nevertheless denied the project because it has a legal duty to minimize environmental damage from any development it approves.

Other experts doubted the success of denying Willow.

John Leshy, former U.S. Interior Department general counsel, and Hugh Daigle, a University of Texas at Austin petroleum and geosystems professor, said the Biden administration likely would have been sued and lost had it denied the Willow drilling.

"From a political standpoint, perhaps there could have been something to gain by forcing a lawsuit, but the administration probably concluded that it would not have been worth the resources expended," Daigle said. 

Drilling approvals have increased since Biden took office.

His administration is granting applications for permits to drill on public and trial lands at a pace faster than the Trump administration at the same point. From the start of their administrations through March 27, Biden approved 7,118 permits and Trump 7,051, The Washington Post reported.

About the permit approvals, the Bureau of Land Management has said the bureau has taken a "balanced approach to energy development and management of our nation’s public lands."

Federal auction for drilling is baked into climate law

The Inflation Reduction Act, despite being touted for its climate change provisions, also requires more drilling. It was a compromise to get the legislation passed.

The Gulf of Mexico lease auction, for example, was required in the bill, which Biden signed in August. That provision requires the Interior Department to sell onshore drilling leases when it offers leases for renewable energy development.

Another Gulf of Mexico lease sale is scheduled for September.

The law’s major steps against climate change include:

  • The law included $260 billion in tax credits to boost investment in solar, wind, hydropower and other forms of renewable energy. 

  • It is expected to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 32% to 40% by 2030, compared to emission levels in 2005, according to independent researchers.

Daigle said the March lease sale was a compromise, mandated in exchange for granting offshore rights of way for solar and wind power. 

The leasing requirement helped secure support from a conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Does the U.S. need the oil?

The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association representing American oil and natural gas companies and industries, applauded the Willow approval as crucial to ongoing energy needs. It cited U.S. Energy Administration figures showing that 68% of energy consumption comes from oil and natural gas, compared with 12% for renewables. 

Attorney Megan Gibson of the Niskanen Center, a nonpartisan think tank named for former President Ronald Reagan’s economic adviser, William Niskanen, said the federal government should work with developers to produce more renewable energy. Approving fossil fuel projects "hinders our ability to do exactly that and locks us into more of the same," she said.

But Daigle said the Willow and Gulf of Mexico auction moves are not "game changers" for oil production. He also said that although some people argue that the U.S. is better off getting its oil from domestic sources than from overseas, oil is a globally traded commodity, so there is no guarantee that oil from Willow would be sold only to U.S. consumers.

At the same time, Willow oil could be important going forward.

Joseph Kantenbacher, a sustainability and environment professor at the University of South Dakota, said he expects total U.S. oil production to drop in the coming decades, so Willow’s expected peak production of 180,000 barrels of oil per day "could become a larger slice of a shrinking pie."

The U.S. was a net exporter of petroleum, which includes crude oil, as of 2021, according to the latest U.S. Energy Administration figures. 

The difference was 8.54 million barrels per day of exports versus 8.47 million of imports, which have generally declined for more than a decade.

Preliminary figures for 2022 show a wider gap: 9.6 million barrels per day exports to 8.3 million imports.

By approving these projects, has Biden undone his climate change mitigation efforts?

Several experts said approving Willow is a step backward for renewable energy development. 

But the Inflation Reduction Act puts the U.S. on course to net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Net-zero is achieved when all greenhouse gas emissions released by human activities are counterbalanced by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Kantenbacher said greenhouse gases expected from Willow are the equivalent of two or three coal plants operating during the same period. But cuts in greenhouse gases enabled by the Inflation Reduction Act "are likely far more substantial" than greenhouse gases emitted by Willow, he said.

Moreover, said Daigle, the Inflation Reduction Act will eventually reduce demand for oil and gas, which could lead to reduced efforts to lease and drill in the Gulf of Mexico.

RELATED: Fact-checking Biden’s claim that there are 9,000 unused oil drilling permits (updated)

RELATED: Did Biden stop domestic oil drilling, as Herschel Walker said? Hardly

RELATED: Oil production in Biden’s first year on par with Trump

RELATED: President Joe Biden flip-flopped on allowing new oil and gas drilling on federal lands

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Our Sources

PolitiFact, "President Joe Biden flip-flopped on allowing new oil and gas drilling on federal lands," March 15, 2023

Email, Oakland, California attorney Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, April 3, 2023

Email, Megan Gibson, deputy chief counsel of the Niskanen Center, April 11, 2023

Fox News, "Biden admin bucks climate activists, holds enormous Trump-era oil and gas lease sale," March 29, 2023

U.S. Energy Administration, "How much petroleum does the United States import and export?", August 2022

U.S. Energy Administration, "Supply and disposition," March 31, 2023

Email, U.S. Energy Administration spokesperson Chris Higginbotham, April 11, 2023

U.S. Energy Administration, "Weekly U.S. net imports of crude oil and petroleum products," April 5, 2023

U.S. Energy Administration, "U.S. primary energy consumption by energy source, 2021," June 10, 2022,

CNN, "Biden administration moves ahead with massive Gulf of Mexico drilling auction, weeks after approving Willow Project," March 29, 2023

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Synthesis Report Of The Ipcc Sixth Assessment Report (AR6)," March 20, 2023

Congressional Research Service, "Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA):Provisions Related to Climate Change," Oct. 3, 2022

NPR, "The Biden administration sells oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico," March 29, 2023

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, "Lease Sale 259," March 29, 2023

Interview, John Leshy, University of California San Francisco emeritus Harry D. Sunderland and distinguished professor of real property law and former general counsel of the Interior Department, March 14, 2023

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, "Gulf of Mexico Oil and Gas Lease Sale Results Announced," March 29, 2023

Email, Joseph Kantenbacher, sustainability and environment professor at the University of South Dakota, April 11, 2023

Project On Government Oversight, "The Inflation Reduction Act: Topline Oil and Gas Reforms," Sept. 2, 2022

Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, "Lawsuit Challenges Biden Decision to Open 73.3 Million Acres of Gulf of Mexico for Oil Leasing," March 6, 2023

Email, Hugh Daigle, petroleum and geosystems professor and director of the sustainability minor program at the University of Texas at Austin, April 3, 2023

Center for Biological Diversity, "Biden Administration Oil, Gas Drilling Approvals Outpace Trump’s Massive Fossil Fuel Expansion Undermines U.S. Climate Commitments," Jan. 24, 2023

Bureau of Land Management, "Applications For Permits To Drill," accessed March 21, 2023

Email, Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Brian Hires, March 15, 2023

Bureau of Land Management, "Approved APDs Report - Federal," accessed March 22, 2023

Associated Press, "Biden Promised To End New Drilling On Federal Land, But Approvals Are Up," July 13, 2021

Washington Post, "Why Biden’s oil policies upset both oil companies and environmentalists," March 29, 2023

Email, American Petroleum Institute spokesperson Andrea Woods, April 10, 2023 

American Petroleum Institute, "After Willow, U.S. Needs Consistent Oil and Natural Gas Support from Washington," March 16, 2023

American Petroleum Institute, "Delay and Uncertainty Still Surround Administration's Offshore Approach," March 29, 2023

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