WASHINGTON (AP) – In early March, President Joe Biden met with members of Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation as they pleaded with him to approve a controversial oil drilling project in their state. Around the same time, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held a very different meeting on the same topic.
Gathering at Interior headquarters a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) from the White House, leaders of major environmental organizations and indigenous groups asked Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, to use his authority to block the Willow oil project. Environmental groups are calling the project a “carbon bomb” that would derail Biden’s – and Haaland’s – climate change pledges and have launched a #StopWillow social media campaign that has been viewed hundreds of millions of times.
The closed-door meeting, described by two participants who insisted on not being identified because of its confidential nature, turned emotional as participants called on Haaland to oppose the project, which many believed Biden would likely approve, even though contradicted his planet-cutting agenda – halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Haaland, who opposed Willow while serving in Congress, choked up as she explained that the Interior Department had to make tough choices, according to attendees. Many Alaska Native groups support Willow as a job and economic lifeline.
Less than two weeks later, the Biden administration announced its approval of Willow, ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion drilling plan on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope.
Haaland, who has not commented publicly on Willow in her two years as head of the US agency overseeing the project, was not involved in the announcement and did not sign the approval order, leaving that to her deputy Tommy Beaudreau.
In an embarrassing video released Monday night, 10 hours after the decision was announced, Haaland said she and Biden, both Democrats, believe the climate crisis is “the most pressing issue of our lifetime.”
She called Willow “a difficult and complex issue that has been inherited” from previous administrations and noted that ConocoPhillips has long held leases to drill for oil at the site, in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve.
“As a result, we have limited room for decision-making,” she said, adding that officials focused on how to reduce the project’s footprint “and minimize its impact on people and wildlife.” The final approval reflects a significantly smaller project than ConocoPhillips originally proposed and includes a pledge by the Houston-based oil company to give up nearly 70,000 hectares (28,000 acres) of leased land that will no longer be developed, she said.
The video had more than 100,000 views by early Friday.
Haaland declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, the department said Haaland was “actively involved” in the Willow decision from the beginning and met with Alaska Natives on both sides of the issue, conservation and other groups and members of Congress. “That includes an appearance with members of the Alaska Federation of Natives who were in town the week before the announcement,” the department said.
Dallas Goldtooth, senior strategist for the Indigenous Environmental Network, called it “problematic” that Haaland’s video was the Biden administration’s primary voice on Willow. Biden himself has not spoken publicly about the project.
“They’re using people of color as cover for these decisions,” said Goldtooth, a member of the Mdewakanton Dakota tribe.
Allowing Haaland to be the administration’s public face at Willow “strengthens” Biden’s expected re-election run by allowing him to avoid public scrutiny on an issue on which some of his most ardent supporters disagree with him, Goldtooth said.
“It’s a clear DC policy,” he said. “I’ve seen this play before,” including when former Biden environmental justice adviser Cecilia Martinez was called on to address tribal concerns about two other energy projects, the Dakota Access pipeline and Line 3 in the upper Midwest.
When asked about Willow on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the oil company “has a legal right to those leases,” adding, “The department’s options are limited when there are legal contracts.”
Goldtooth and others involved in the Willow fight say the project was largely advanced by Beaudreau, Haaland’s deputy, who grew up in Alaska and has close ties to the state’s two Republican senators. Beaudreau is particularly close to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the former Senate energy chairwoman who has worked with Biden on a range of issues. Murkowski played a key role in Haaland’s confirmation, and she and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia teamed up to appoint Beaudreau as his running mate after opposing Haaland’s first choice, Elizabeth Klein.
Murkowski told reporters this week that she and other Alaska officials had long understood that the decision on Willow would likely be made by the White House, despite repeated comments from Jean-Pierre that the decision was up to the Interior Department.
The senator, who personally lobbied Biden for Willow for nearly two years, said she reminded him, “Cooperation goes both ways.”
Despite the White House’s involvement, Haaland has come under fire for his decision to approve Willow. New Mexico’s senior Democratic senator, Martin Heinrich, singled her out for criticism in a rare rebuke of a fellow New Mexico Democrat. Haaland represented the state in Congress before becoming secretary of the interior.
“The Western Arctic is one of the last great wild landscapes on the planet, and as a public land it belongs to every American,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Industrial development in this untouched landscape will not age well.”
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, DN.M., who holds Haaland’s former congressional seat, said she joined millions of people, “including indigenous leaders, scientists and legislators, in opposing the Willow project.” She called on the Biden administration to review the project and its effects on global climate change.
Native American tribes in the US Southwest are watching Willow closely, worried about any implications it could have on the development of culturally significant areas, including the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New Mexico.
A federal appeals court ruled that the Interior Department failed to consider the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the approval of nearly 200 drilling permits in the area around the Chaco site.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, visited the Chaco in 2021 and told tribal leaders that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management would work to withdraw hundreds of square miles (hundreds of square kilometers) from development. She also pledged to broaden her view of how federal lands across the region can be better managed while taking into account environmental effects and cultural preservation.
Mario Atencio, of Diné CARE, a Navajo environmental group, said he understands the Interior Department is facing pressure from GOP lawmakers to increase drilling, as well as conflicting court rulings on the Biden-ordered pause on oil leases on public lands.
“We’re very aware that sometimes it’s a game of inches, and there’s a little bit of discretion in some places, and we’re just trying to be as visible as the oil and gas industry,” said Atencio, who is Navajo.
The Willow Project has divided Alaska Native groups. Supporters have called the project balanced and say communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow to invest in infrastructure and provide public services.
Nuiqsut Township Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, opposes the project and worries about the impact on caribou and the way of life of its residents.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, NM contributed to this story.