For Many Young Voters, Biden’s Support of Drilling in Alaska Casts Pall
WASHINGTON — In the past three weeks, President Biden’s administration has proposed regulations to speed the transition to electric vehicles, committed $1 billion to help poor countries fight climate change and prepared what could be the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
And yet, many young voters alarmed by climate change remain angry with Mr. Biden’s decision last month to approve Willow, an $8 billion oil drilling project on pristine federal land in Alaska. As the president prepares to announce his bid for re-election, it’s not at all clear that those voters who helped him win in 2020 because of his commitment to climate action will turn out again.
Alex Haraus, 25, said he and other young people felt betrayed by the Willow decision, after Mr. Biden had pledged as a candidate that he would end new oil drilling on public lands “period, period, period.”
Mr. Haraus, whose videos on TikTok opposing the Willow project amassed hundreds of thousands of views, described his reaction as “mad and frustrated and disappointed.”
About a dozen young climate activists interviewed said they were not assuaged by the other actions by the Biden administration, even if they significantly draw down greenhouse gas emissions that are dangerously heating the planet, Mr. Haraus said. What they want, he said, is for the president to rein in oil and gas companies, which enjoyed record profits last year.
“I don’t think any of those things encourage people to forgive the Biden administration for projects like Willow,” said Mr. Haraus, who lives outside Chicago. “Young voters see our future getting thrown out the window. We need Biden to take on the industry, otherwise there’s not much for us to hope for.”
Young voters overwhelmingly — about 62 percent — support phasing out fossil fuels entirely, said Alec Tyson, an associate director of research at Pew Research Center. There is broad support among registered voters of both parties for a transition to a future in which the United States is no longer pumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere, Mr. Tyson said. But most are not willing to break with fossil fuels altogether, he said.
From his earliest days in office, Mr. Biden has highlighted climate action as a top priority. Soon after moving into the White House, he re-entered the United States in the Paris Agreement and set an ambitious goal of cutting the country’s emissions roughly 50 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade.
He signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides $370 billion in incentives to expand wind, solar and other clean energy and electric vehicles. He has proposed rules to ensure that two-thirds of new cars and a quarter of new heavy trucks sold in the United States by 2032 are all-electric. Within weeks, he is expected to require that coal and gas plants, responsible for 25 percent of the country’s greenhouse gases, significantly cut their emissions.
Yet lawmakers and activists said they worried that regulatory moves would not capture the imagination of voters and that the Willow project would cast a long shadow.
“He takes one step forward with the I.R.A., and two steps back with the Willow project,” said Representative Jamaal Bowman, Democrat of New York, who along with more than 30 other progressive lawmakers has urged Mr. Biden to cancel the drilling permit.
Young voters are also angry that Mr. Biden allowed language in the climate law that makes it easier to drill for oil offshore, and by the approval this month of expanded liquefied natural gas exports from Alaska. On Monday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm applauded the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a partially constructed pipeline that would carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia but has been strongly opposed by environmentalists and repeatedly halted by courts.
In a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Ms. Granholm stopped short of endorsing the pipeline but said it would “enhance the nation’s critical infrastructure for energy and national security.” The pipeline is a top priority of Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, a coal- and gas-producing state.
“The Biden administration is trying to reassure swing-state Democrats like Senator Manchin that despite the new power plant rule due later this week, natural gas will still play an important role in the clean energy transition,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton administration climate official who is now with the Progressive Policy Institute. “The timing is anything but accidental.”
But Mr. Bowman said that Mr. Biden was sending a mixed message to young voters and that they were rejecting it.
“Young people are plugged in and more informed than they have ever been about climate change,” he said. “Now they’re feeling stabbed in the back.” If Mr. Biden doesn’t reverse course, “young people stay home in 2024, that’s the consequences,” Mr. Bowman said.
Nationwide, 61 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, while 36 percent voted for Donald J. Trump, according to an analysis from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the nonpartisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University. That’s higher than the level of youth support Hillary Clinton received from young voters in 2016.
A March poll from Data for Progress, a liberal research group, saw a 13 percent drop Mr. Biden’s approval ratings when it came to his climate agenda among voters aged 18 to 29 in the aftermath of the Willow decision.
But administration officials said they had seen no evidence that the president had lost ground with climate voters, or even young voters. They pointed to polls by YouGov and Morning Consult taken after the Willow decision that showed roughly half of Americans supported it. The Morning Consult survey found about 30 percent of young voters had not even heard of the Willow project.
“President Biden has been delivering on the most ambitious climate agenda ever with the support of labor groups, environmental justice and climate leaders, youth advocates, and more,” a White House spokesman, Abdullah Hasan, said in a statement.
The International Energy Agency has warned that countries must stop new oil and gas drilling to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. Beyond that point, the effects of catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failure and species extinction would become significantly harder for humanity to handle. The planet has already warmed more than 1.1 degrees.
At the same time, the agency has projected that global oil demand will still rise until peaking and leveling off somewhere around 2035.
John Holdren, who served as chief science adviser to President Barack Obama, opposed the Willow project. But he believes that driving down the demand for oil and gas — as the Biden administration is trying to do by expanding clean energy and encouraging electric vehicles — is more effective than blocking drilling. If everyone is driving electric cars, there’s less need for gasoline, the theory goes.
“The enemy is us,” he said. “Fossil fuel companies are producing something that society has been eagerly gobbling up. We have to drastically reduce demand.”
That thinking was part of the decision-making at the White House when it came to the Willow project, several people with knowledge of the discussions said. Most administration officials felt strongly that the impact of aggressive regulation and investments in clean energy would outweigh any climate harm caused by Willow.
Oil burned from Willow is expected to release nearly 254 million metric tons of carbon emissions over 30 years. The Biden administration has estimated that the climate law and the 2021 infrastructure law will lead to the reduction of more than one billion metric tons of carbon emissions over the next 10 years.
There were other considerations, including advice from government lawyers that the Biden administration could face a multibillion dollar legal judgment if it denied the drilling permits because the applicant, ConocoPhillips, held leases in that region for more than a decade.
And finally, political advisers felt that if the White House blocked Willow, Republicans would be able to argue that the Biden administration was harming American energy supplies, after it had pleaded with oil companies to ramp up production to bring down gas prices in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine, according to the people familiar with the decision process.
For years, the Willow project remained under the public’s radar, even among environmental activists. When social media campaigns objecting to Willow galvanized millions of activists early this year, it surprised administration officials, several people involved in the campaign said.
Mark Paul, a political economist at Rutgers University, said that while the Biden administration has a strong plan for reducing demand, it needs complementary policies that slash production.
“We already have enough fossil fuels to meet our needs as we transition,” he said. “The administration is scared to use the bully pulpit against oil and gas. It’s trying to play both sides.”
Michele Weindling, electoral director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental group, said young people want to see Mr. Biden fight.
“This was a cultural moment for my generation,” Ms. Weindling said of Willow.
“It was a huge moment to say ‘No’ to the oil and gas industry,” she said. “It was a moment for President Biden to show us, what side are you on? He chose the wrong side. That makes our job a lot harder, to tell Generation Z and young voters that Biden will live up to his climate promises.”