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Alaska lawmakers up pressure on Biden to approve massive oil project

The Climate 202

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In today’s edition, we’ll cover House Republicans’ scrutiny of U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry and the departure of Brian Deese from the White House. But first:

Lawmakers pushing for Willow project stress Alaska’s struggling economy

When the Interior Department on Wednesday released a key environmental assessment for a massive oil project in Alaska, it set the stage for one of President Biden’s most consequential climate decisions.

It also ramped up the political pressure on the administration, as an influential group of Alaska lawmakers lobby the White House to approve the project in the coming weeks, while leading environmental groups lobby to kill it.

Amid Biden’s ambitious climate agenda, Alaska’s congressional delegation might have some pull with the administration: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is a key swing vote in the closely divided Senate, while Rep. Mary Peltola (D) received a call from Biden when she became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress.

In an interview Thursday, Peltola argued that ConocoPhillips’s Willow project would provide crucial jobs and revenue for Alaska, a state whose struggling economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas.

The Alaska economy “has no growth,” Peltola said. “We’re not in a slump. We’re not in a ditch. We’re in a crevasse. And it doesn’t seem like there’s any upswing.”

  • From 2015 to 2021, the Alaska economy performed “at or near the bottom” nationally in four key measures of economic health, according to a report released last year by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development.
  • Alaska’s oil and gas industry contributed $3.1 billion to state and local governments in 2019, helping to pay for services such as public safety and education, according to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
  • Many Alaska Native groups support Willow and would receive a slice of its revenue, although some in the nearest town, Nuiqsut, are concerned about the project’s effects.

Peltola said Alaska’s congressional delegation has pressed these points, including the state’s reliance on oil revenue, in meetings with administration officials.

“Of course every person on Earth wants us to be shifting to renewables,” she said. “Of course we do. But most people also recognize you cannot do that with a snap of the fingers.”

Willow is located in the nation’s single-largest block of public land. The administration said Wednesday that under its “preferred alternative,” ConocoPhillips would be allowed to drill three well pads, instead of the five it had originally requested, to better protect caribou and other wildlife.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who previously opposed the project as a member of Congress, has 30 days to make a final decision on whether to approve it, shrink it or reject it altogether.

'Carbon bomb’ or national security imperative?

Environmentalists argue that Willow would be a “carbon bomb” and would undermine Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

  • According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, the larger site would have generated up to 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years — equivalent to the annual emissions of 76 coal plants. ConocoPhillips has disputed those estimates.
  • The environmental law firm Earthjustice found the administration’s “preferred alternative” would only cut the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions from the project by 3 to 9 percent from ConocoPhillips’ initial proposal.

“Taking a step closer to approving this project is in direct conflict with the president’s climate, environmental justice and biodiversity goals,” Kristen Miller, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a phone interview Thursday.

However, Alaska lawmakers assert that Willow is a national security imperative and would reduce America’s reliance on oil from foreign adversaries.

  • Interior estimated the project could produce between 576 million and 614 million barrels of oil over 30 years — enough to cover nationwide oil consumption for 30 days.
  • The energy challenges spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have prompted the Biden administration to rethink its relationships with oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, drawing criticism from Republicans.

“Why would the president go to Saudi Arabia on bended knee asking for more oil?” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on the Senate floor Thursday. “Why would this administration go to Venezuela … who has some of the most dirty, polluting energy projects in the world, so we can import more oil into America?”

Sullivan said that while he had requested a meeting with Biden to discuss Willow, a Democrat might have more influence with the administration — an apparent nod to the support for Willow from Peltola and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a friend of Murkowski’s.

“All my Republican colleagues are of course supportive,” he said. “But they don’t have the sway with the Biden administration.”

Murkowski, for her part, was attending the Arctic Frontiers conference in Norway this week, but that didn’t stop her from weighing in on the debate from across the Atlantic.

On the Hill

House oversight panel probes Kerry’s international engagements

House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) on Thursday requested information on U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry’s international negotiations, especially with China.

In a letter, Comer asked for documents and information related to Kerry’s spending, staffing and travel since he assumed the role in 2021.

“As a member of the President’s cabinet, you should be representing the United States’ interests.” Comer wrote. “Yet, you continue to engage in activities that could undermine our economic health, skirt congressional authority, and threaten foreign policy under the guise of climate advocacy.” 

This marks the third time Comer has inquired about Kerry’s role, which is not a Senate-confirmed position. On each of those occasions, Kerry’s office did not respond to requests for details, according to Comer.

A spokesperson for the State Department told The Climate 202 that “while the Department does not comment on Congressional inquiries, the Department works to appropriately accommodate such requests.” 

The spokesperson added that “the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate has and will continue to engage Members of Congress on international efforts to combat the climate crisis.”

Thursday’s request previews what’s to come for the administration as the Republican-controlled House ramps up oversight of President Biden’s climate agenda.

Republicans want to repeal Biden’s clean water rule

Republicans in both chambers on Thursday introduced a resolution aimed at repealing President Biden’s clean water rule, but it faces long odds, Rachel Frazin reports for the Hill. 

The regulation, finalized in December, expands the definition of waterways that the Environmental Protection Agency has authority to regulate, reversing a Trump-era change.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) introduced the resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to scrap any regulation within 60 legislative days of its finalization by a simple majority vote. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Sam Graves (R-Mo.) introduced a similar resolution in the House.

Axing the rule “will give every member of Congress the chance to stand with farmers, ranchers, landowners, and builders, and protect future transportation, infrastructure, and energy projects of all kinds in their states,” Capito said in a statement.

However, the move would ultimately require Biden’s approval, which is highly unlikely given the president’s previous enthusiasm for the protections.

Pressure points

Biden announces departure of Brian Deese from top economic job

President Biden on Thursday confirmed that Brian Deese will step down as the top economic adviser in the White House, The Washington Post’s John Wagner reports.

Deese played a key role in the negotiations over Democrats’ landmark climate law, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, joining secret talks over the summer that included Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

After serving as BlackRock’s global head of sustainable investing, Deese brought more climate expertise to the National Economic Council than any past director, Jim Tankersley reports for the New York Times. Although some liberal groups slammed his ties to the Wall Street giant, their criticism quieted after the passage of the historic climate bill.

In the search for Deese’s successor, Federal Reserve Vice Chair Lael Brainard has emerged as a top contender, The Post’s Tyler Pager, Jeff Stein and Rachel Siegel scooped last week. Environmentalists have praised Brainard for her focus on how climate change can pose a threat to big banks and the broader financial system.

In the atmosphere


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