Home Secretary Haaland slammed for ‘tough’ choice on Project Willow

WASHINGTON (AP) — In early March, President Joe Biden met with members of Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation as they implored 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.

Meeting at Interior headquarters half a mile from the White House, leaders of major environmental organizations and Indigenous groups pleaded with Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, to use his authority to block the Willow oil project. Environmental groups call the project a ‘carbon bomb’ that would betray promises made by Biden – and Haaland – to fight climate change and have mounted a #StopWillow social media campaign that has been viewed hundreds of millions of times .

The closed-door meeting, which was described by two attendees who insisted not to be identified due to its confidential nature, became emotional as attendees urged Haaland to oppose a plan that many believed Biden seemed likely to approve even if it contradicted his program to cut off the planet. -Halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Haaland, who opposed Willow when she was in Congress, choked up saying the Department of the Interior had to make tough choices, attendees said. Many Alaska Native groups support Willow as a job creator and economic lifeline.

Less than two weeks later, the Biden administration announced it was approving Willow, an $8 billion drilling plan by ConocoPhillips on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope.

Haaland, who had not publicly commented on Willow in two years as head of the US agency overseeing the project, was not involved in the announcement and did not sign the order of approval, leaving that to his deputy, Tommy Beaudreau.

SHOW: Controversial Alaska oil drilling project approved by Biden administration

In an online video Posted Monday evening, 10 hours after the decision was made public, Haaland said she and Biden, both Democrats, believe the climate crisis “is the most pressing issue of our lives.”

She called Willow a “difficult and complex legacy problem” from previous administrations and noted that ConocoPhillips had long held leases to drill oil at the site, in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.

“As a result, we have limited decision-making space,” she said, adding that officials have focused on reducing the project’s footprint and minimizing impacts on people and wildlife. The final approval reflects a significantly smaller project than originally proposed by ConocoPhillips and includes a commitment from the Houston-based oil company to relinquish nearly 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares) of leased land that will not be further developed, a she declared.

The video had received over 100,000 views as of Friday.

Haaland declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, the department said Haaland had been “actively involved” in the Willow decision from the start and had met with Alaska Natives on both sides of the issue, conservation and other groups and members of the Congress.

Dallas Goldtooth, senior strategist for the Indigenous Environmental Network, called it “problematic” that Haaland’s video is the Biden administration’s primary voice on Willow. Biden himself has not spoken publicly about the project.

“They’re using people of color to cover up these 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 Secretary of the Interior, “of course the video came from her.”

But Haaland’s body language – at times looking away from the camera – made her “very uncomfortable” in the two-minute video, Goldtooth said.

EXPLANATION : What is the controversy behind the Alaska Willow oil project?

Haaland’s statement “does not appear to be an unqualified defense of the decision,” said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group. “It was almost an apology.”

Allowing Haaland to be the administration’s public face on Willow bolsters Biden’s long-awaited re-election by allowing him to avoid public scrutiny of an issue some of his most ardent supporters disagree on. with him, environmentalists said.

“It’s a clear DC policy,” Goldtooth said. “I’ve seen this play play before,” including when former Biden environmental justice adviser Cecilia Martinez was offered to address tribal concerns about two other energy projects, the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines in the upper Midwest.

Asked about Willow on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters the oil company “has a legal right to those leases,” adding, “The department’s options are limited when it there are legal contracts in place.”

Goldtooth and others involved in the fight against Willow say the project was largely advanced by Beaudreau, Haaland’s deputy, who grew up in Alaska and has close relationships with the state’s two Republican senators. Beaudreau is particularly close to Senator Lisa Murkowski, a former Senate energy chair who cooperated with Biden on a range of issues. Murkowski played a key role in confirming Haaland, and she and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia teamed up to have Beaudreau installed as deputy after opposing Haaland’s first choice, Elizabeth Klein.

SHOW: White House holds press conference amid backlash over Project Willow

Murkowski told reporters this week that she and other Alaska officials had long realized that the decision on Willow would likely be made by the White House, despite Jean-Pierre’s repeated comments that the decision belonged to the Interior.

The senator, who personally lobbied Biden on Willow for nearly two years, said she reminded him, “Cooperation is a two-way street.”

Despite the White House’s involvement, Haaland was blamed for the decision to endorse Willow. Leading New Mexico Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich slammed her in a rare rebuke from another New Mexico Democrat. Haaland represented the state in Congress before becoming Secretary of the Interior.

“The Western Arctic is one of the last great wilderness landscapes on the planet, and as public land it belongs to all Americans,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Industrial development in this unspoiled landscape will not age well.”

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, DN.M., who occupies Haaland’s former seat in Congress, said she joined millions of people, “including Indigenous leaders, scientists and lawmakers, to oppose the Willow project”. She urged the Biden administration to reconsider the project and its implications for global climate change.

Native American tribes across the southwestern United States are watching Willow closely, concerned about the implications it could have for development in culturally significant areas, including the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New -Mexico.

A federal appeals court has ruled that the Department of the Interior failed to consider the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the approval of nearly 200 drilling permits near the site of chaco.

SHOW: Second. Haaland on the importance of Native American representation

Laguna Pueblo member Haaland visited the Chaco in 2021 and told tribal leaders that the Interior Department’s Office of Land Management would work to remove hundreds of square miles from development. She is also committed to looking more broadly at how federal lands in the region can be better managed while considering environmental effects and cultural preservation.

Mario Atencio of Diné CARE, a Navajo environmental group, said he understands the Interior Department is under pressure from GOP lawmakers to increase drilling, as well as conflicting court rulings on a pause. ordered by Biden on leasing oil on public land.

“We’re very aware that sometimes it’s a game of thumbs, and there’s a bit of discretion in some places, and we’re just trying to get as much visibility as the oil and gas industry,” Atencio said, who is Navajo.

The Willow Project divided Alaska Native groups. Proponents call the project balanced and say communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow. But Nuiqsut Town Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, opposes the project and is concerned about impacts on caribou and subsistence livelihoods. its residents.

Hartl, of the biological diversity group, said Willow was endorsed by the White House for clear political reasons. “They cared more about Lisa Murkowski’s vote than frankly about the climate,” he said.

Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, NM, contributed to this story.


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