As we’ve told you, President Biden approved the Willow Arctic Oil project – a verified climate bomb that will blow all his promises, and to the Paris Climate Accords goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C to smithereens. We also got word today that while quick legal action has helped delay the project, an initial motion to halt construction was denied today. Which means that we’re not out of the woods yet, legally.
Mostly though, we need to be clear that Biden didn’t approve willow because he thought it was the law. And he certainly didn’t do it because he thought it would be good for the climate or the environment. Biden approved Willow because of politics. And while there is still time for President Biden to reverse the decision, we need to build a politically powerful reason for him to do so.
That’s why we’re signing on with our friends Climate Hawks Vote – they’re a climate-focussed super PAC, so they’re all about politics – to encourage members of Congress to sign on to a letter with our friend and environmental justice champion Rep Raul Grijalva that asks Biden to undo his Willow decision.
Political power is a tricky concept, sometimes easier to understand in the negative, so let’s name a few things that are Not political power:
- Political power is not the same as fame or notoriety. Donald Trump is already famous, and as the only former-President in history to be indicted, he’s gaining notoriety right now. But those things won’t help him win an election or pass legislation. His political power comes from people like the fossil fuel industry, who understand that through him and his fascist friends, they can extract more fossil fuels, jail or even kill protestors and activists who oppose them, and make a lot of money.
- Similarly, political power is not an audience, reach, or viewership on social media. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad a lot of people, especially young people, made social media videos talking about Willow, and it’s a good sign millions of people saw and reacted to those videos by doing things like signing petition. But Biden knows that there’s a huge difference between watching a video, even if you like or share it, and showing up to vote, coming to a rally, running for office, or calling your legislator.
- None of this is to reduce or distract from the Biden White House’s very frustrating and consistent attempts to make it harder to submit politically powerful comments to them. Their comment line is (in)famously only open for a handful of days a week and only from 11am-4pm eastern time (which is especially inconvenient if, for example, you live in Alaska).
- There’s another problem, that’s been deepening and worsening in recent years, with social media (all of it, not just TikTok) – which is that it’s getting less and less controlled by humans, and more and more controlled by corporations and various kinds of computer systems. I’m working on a longer piece (for social media, un-ironically) about some of those trends so follow our accounts if you want to hear or talk more about that.
- Finally, we know that political power is not the same thing as money – though rules around American elections and money in politics sometimes make it seem like it. But the simple fact is that dollars do not vote, nor does the candidate with the most, or most expensive, advertising always win. Money can buy you a lot of things, for good or ill, ranging from time, to materials, to advertising. But it can’t buy
But enough of the argument by analogy – the real reason we now Biden’s decision was about politics, and not climate, is that he showed us: Biden and the White House met multiple times with Alaska’s Congressional delegation, which (see above about fossil fuel political power) was universally in favor of the project, and of fossil fuels in general. Since then, Biden and the Department of Interior have trotted out a range of excuses that, as noted in this truly excellent piece this week from the American Prospect, range from the comically absurd, to just plain chickenshit. Just to pick a few obvious ones:
- Biden claimed that denying a project on land that ConocoPhillips already leased (years ago) could have led to fines of up to $5 billion dollars. But using the Administration’s own social cost of carbon calculator, which they are required by Biden’s own executive order to do, clearly shows that the “social cost” of the project is between $12 and $45 billion.
- Biden later claimed that he had to approve Willow, in order to also make a series of conservation announcements on the same day. But that’s just factually wrong, in addition to being a non-sensical attempt to trade death and destruction on a global scale for a few million acres of land and water where nobody was drilling anyway. Existing law gives the President a wide latitude in approving or denying projects on public lands. That’s kind of the executive branch’s job. The idea that the President is empowered to call in an airstrike or negotiate an international treaty, but not say “no” to an individual permit on and individual piece of land that the government already owns and has rules and regulations governing the use of is just preposterous.
- And finally there’s the argument that Biden had to approve Willow because otherwise he would get sued, and that nobody can ever possibly win a lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry. Obviously, Biden was going to get sued either way – in fact he was already being sued by both the oil company and environmental groups over Willow. What Biden is really telling us when he tells us he “had” to approve Willow because he doesn’t believe we can win. In the end, Biden thinks the fossil fuel industry, and their allies in the Alaska Congressional delegation, are simply too politically powerful.
And that’s why we’re supporting Rep Grijalva’s letter today. If the members of Congress from Alaska have enough political power to make Biden say yes, we need to build a bigger political power base on the other side, asking him to reverse the decision and say no to Willow. So far we’ve got House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Democrat Grijalva, and Reps. Bowman, Khana and Ocasio-Cortez. But that’s probably not enough. If we really want to convince Biden, we’ll need at least two Senators, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a few of the House members be from “vulnerable” districts or new legislators (Mary Peltota is both).
That’s an achievable goal – if enough of us speak up together, we can build this sign on letter to a politically powerful tool. We don’t need every member of Congress signed on, nor do we need a lot of any particular political party. We just need enough to demonstrate that we’ve got more political power than Joe Biden thought. And then he’s got all the power he needs to #JustStopWillow.