WASHINGTON — In early March, President Joe Biden met with members of Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation as they implored him to approve a contentious 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 pleaded with Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, to use her authority to block the Willow oil project. Environmental groups call the project a “carbon bomb” that would betray pledges made by Biden — and Haaland — to fight climate change and have mounted a social media #StopWillow campaign that has been seen hundreds of millions of times.
The closed-door meeting, which was described by two participants who insisted on not being identified because of its confidential nature, grew emotional as participants urged Haaland to oppose a project many believed Biden appeared likely to approve even as it contradicted his agenda to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Haaland, who opposed Willow when she served in Congress, choked up as she explained that the Interior Department had to make difficult choices, according to the participants. Many Native groups in Alaska 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 petroleum-rich North Slope.
Haaland, who had not publicly commented on Willow in two years as head of the U.S. 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 online video released Monday night, 10 hours after the decision was made public, Haaland said she and Biden, both Democrats, believe the climate crisis "is the most urgent issue of our lifetime.''
She called Willow "a difficult and complex issue that was inherited'' from previous administrations and noted that ConocoPhillips has long held leases to drill for oil on the site, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
“As a result, we have limited decision space,'' she said, adding that officials focused on reducing the project’s footprint and minimizing impacts to people and wildlife. The final approval reflects a substantially smaller project than ConocoPhillips originally proposed and includes a pledge by the Houston-based oil company to relinquish nearly 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares) of leased land that will no longer be developed, she said.
The video had received more than 100,000 views by 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 met with Alaska Natives on both sides of the issue, conservation and other groups and members of Congress.
Dallas Goldtooth, a 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 on the project.
“They use people of color for cover on these decisions,'' said Goldtooth, a member of Mdewakanton Dakota tribe.
The White House pushed back on the idea, saying in a statement Friday that as interior secretary, “of course the video came from her.″
But Haaland’s body language — at times looking away from the camera — made her appear “very uncomfortable” in the two-minute video, Goldtooth said.
Haaland's statement “did not seem to be a wholehearted defense of the decision,'' said Brett Hartl, government affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group. "It was almost an apology.''
Allowing Haaland to be the administration's public face on Willow strengthens Biden's expected reelection 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-cut D.C. politics,'' Goldtooth said. "I've seen this play run before,'' including when former Biden environmental justice adviser Cecilia Martinez was put forward to address tribal concerns about two other energy projects, the Dakota Access and Line 3 oil pipelines in the upper Midwest.
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 in place."
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 a close relationship with the state's two Republican senators. Beaudreau is especially close to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a former Senate Energy chair who has cooperated 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 get Beaudreau installed as deputy after they objected to Haaland's first choice, Elizabeth Klein.
Murkowski told reporters this week that she and other Alaska officials had long realized that the decision on Willow was likely to be made by the White House, despite repeated comments from Jean-Pierre that the decision was up to Interior.
The senator, who personally lobbied Biden on Willow for nearly two years, said she reminded him, "Cooperation goes both ways.''
Despite the White House involvement, Haaland has been faulted for the 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 Interior secretary.
“The Western Arctic is one of the last great wild landscapes on the planet and as public land it belongs to every American," Heinrich said in a statement. ”Industrial development in this unspoiled landscape will not age well.''
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., who holds Haaland's former seat in Congress, said she joined millions of people, "including Indigenous leaders, scientists and lawmakers, in opposing the Willow Project.'' She urged the Biden administration to reconsider the project and its consequences for global climate change.
Native American tribes in the Southwestern U.S. have been watching Willow closely, concerned about any implications it could have for development in culturally significant areas, including the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.
A federal appeals court has 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 near the Chaco site.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, visited Chaco in 2021 and told tribal leaders that the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management would work toward withdrawing hundreds of square miles from development. She also committed to taking a broader look at how federal land 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 that the Interior Department faces pressure from GOP lawmakers to increase drilling, as well as conflicting court rulings on a pause ordered by Biden on oil leasing on public land.
“We’re very aware that it’s a game of inches sometimes, and there’s a little discretion in some places, and we are just trying to have just as much visibility as the oil and gas industry has,” 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 City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, opposes the project and worries about impacts on caribou and her residents’ subsistence lifestyles.
Hartl, of the biological diversity group, said Willow was approved by the White House for clear political reasons. “They cared more about Lisa Murkowski's vote than frankly they did the climate,'' he said.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this story.