In early March, President Joe Biden met with members of Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation as they pleaded with him to authorize a controversial oil drilling project in their state. Around the same time, Home Secretary Deb Haaland held a very different meeting on the same subject.
Leaders from major environmental organizations and Indigenous groups gathered at the Interior Department’s headquarters, half a mile from the White House, and asked Haaland, the first member of the Native American cabinet, to use their authority to launch the Willow oil project to block. Environmental groups are calling the project a “carbon bomb” that would betray Biden – and Haaland’s – commitments to fight climate change, and have launched a social media campaign #StopWillow that has been seen hundreds of millions of times.
The closed-door meeting, described by two attendees who insisted on not being identified because of their confidential nature, turned emotional when attendees urged Haaland to oppose a project many believed to be Biden would likely approve, even though it went against his agenda, to destroy the planet -warming greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030.
Haaland, who defied Willow while she was serving in Congress, choked on explaining that the Home Office had to make tough decisions, according to attendees. Many Alaskan Indigenous groups support Willow as a job generator and economic lifeline.
Less than two weeks later, the Biden administration announced it would approve Willow, an $8 billion ConocoPhillips drilling plan on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope.
Haaland, who has not spoken publicly about Willow for two years as head of the US agency overseeing the project, was not involved in the announcement and did not sign the permitting order, which she left to her deputy Tommy Beaudreau.
In an online video posted Monday night, 10 hours after the decision was made public, Haaland said that she and Biden, both Democrats, believe the climate crisis is “the most pressing issue of our lives.”
Calling Willow “a difficult and complex problem inherited from previous administrations,” she noted that ConocoPhillips has long held oil well leases on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska property.
“As a result, we have limited decision-making power,” she said, adding that officials are focused on reducing the project’s footprint and minimizing its impact on people and wildlife. The final approval reflects a much smaller project than originally proposed by ConocoPhillips and includes a commitment by the Houston-based oil company to relinquish nearly 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares) of leased land no longer planned for development, she said.
The video had received more than 100,000 views as of Friday.
Haaland declined to be interviewed for this story. However, in a statement, the department said Haaland had been “actively involved” in the Willow decision from the beginning and has met with Alaska Natives on both sides of the issue, conservationists and other groups and members of Congress.
Dallas Goldtooth, a senior strategist with the Indigenous Environmental Network, called it “problematic” that Haaland’s video was the Biden administration’s primary voice on Willow. Biden himself has not commented publicly on the project.
“They use people of color to cover for those decisions,” said Goldtooth, a member of the Mdewakanton Dakota tribe.
The White House pushed back on the idea, saying in a statement Friday that as Home Secretary, “of course the video is hers.”
But Haaland’s body language — sometimes looking away from the camera — made her appear “very uncomfortable” in the two-minute video, Goldtooth said.
Haaland’s statement “does not appear to be an outright defense of the decision,” said Brett Hartl, government director of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group. “It was almost an apology.”
Allowing Haaland to be the public face of government on Willow bolsters 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, environmentalists said.
“It’s clear DC policy,” Goldtooth said. “I’ve seen this piece before,” including when former Biden environmental justice adviser Cecilia Martinez was suggested to address tribes’ concerns about two other energy projects, the Dakota Access and Line 3 oil pipelines 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 these leases,” adding, “The Department’s options are limited, if valid.” contracts exist.”
Goldtooth and others involved in the Willow fight say the project was largely driven by Haaland’s deputy Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska and has close ties to the state’s two Republican senators. Beaudreau is particularly close to Senator Lisa Murkowski, a former Energy Senate chair who has worked with Biden on a number of issues. Murkowski played a key role in Haaland’s confirmation, and she and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia teamed up to install Beaudreau as deputy after objecting to Haaland’s first pick, Elizabeth Klein.
Murkowski told reporters this week that she and other Alaskan officials had long recognized that the decision on Willow would likely be made by the White House, despite repeated comments from Jean-Pierre that the decision was a matter for the Interior Department.
The senator, who personally championed Biden on Willow for nearly two years, said she reminded him, “The collaboration goes both ways.”
Despite White House involvement, Haaland has been blamed for the decision to approve Willow. Senior New Mexico Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich has criticized her in a rare rebuke from another New Mexico Democrat. Haaland represented the state in Congress before becoming Home Secretary.
“The Western Arctic is one of the last great wild landscapes on the planet and as public lands it belongs to every American,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Industrial development in this pristine landscape will not age well.”
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, DN.M., who holds Haaland’s former seat in Congress, said she has been joined by millions of people, “including Indigenous leaders, scientists and lawmakers who oppose the Willow Project.” She called on the Biden administration to reconsider this project and its implications for global climate change.
Native American tribes in the US Southwest have been watching Willow closely, concerned about possible developmental implications in culturally significant areas, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.
A federal appeals court has ruled that the Department of the Interior failed to consider the cumulative impact of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from approving nearly 200 drilling permits near the Chaco site.
Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, visited Chaco in 2021 and told tribal leaders that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management was working to withdraw hundreds of square miles from development. She also pledged to take a broader look at how federal lands in the region can be better managed while considering environmental impacts 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 about a Biden-ordered pause in oil leasing on public land.
“We’re very aware that sometimes it’s an inch game, and in some places there’s a little bit of discretion, and we’re just trying to have as much visibility as the oil and gas industry does,” said Atencio, who is Navajo .
The Willow Project has divided Alaska Native groups. Supporters call the project balanced and say communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow. But Nuiqsut City Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, opposes the project, concerned about the impact on caribou and the livelihoods of its residents.
Hartl of the biological diversity group said Willow was admitted to the White House for clear political reasons. “They cared more about Lisa Murkowski’s voice than frankly about the climate,” he said.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, NM contributed to this story.
https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2023/03/17/haaland-criticized-over-difficult/ Haaland criticized the “difficult” choice in the Willow project