Mar 15, 2023

Biden approves a new oil drilling project.

He's breaking a campaign promise. But is it the right move?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minute.

Today, we're covering President Biden's approval of a massive oil project in Alaska. Plus, a question about the writers we include in "What the left/right are saying."

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Quick hits.

  1. A Russian fighter jet collided with the propeller of an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea, causing American forces to bring down the drone. (The collision)
  2. Former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-CO), known for pioneering women's rights and family rights in Congress, died at the age of 82. (The legacy)
  3. The Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission opened investigations into Silicon Valley Bank's collapse. (The investigation)
  4. President Biden signed an executive order intended to strengthen background checks for gun purchases. (The new rules)
  5. OpenAI released GPT-4 yesterday, an upgrade on its artificial intelligence service with better reasoning capabilities. The AI can complete the bar exam and the SATs with human-like performance. (The tech)

Today's topic.

Arctic oil drilling. On Monday, the Biden administration said it was going to approve an oil drilling project in Alaska's North Slope, a petroleum-rich area in the northernmost county of the United States.

The announcement came a day after the administration made a conservation move, saying it would bar or limit drilling in roughly 16 million acres of Alaskan land and the Arctic Ocean. Biden is barring drilling in 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea and limiting drilling in 13 million acres of the federally designated National Petroleum Reserve.

Biden's announcement drew condemnation from environmentalists, who said the decision amounts to breaking his promise to stop new oil drilling on federal lands, which was one of his climate change pledges. There was an outpouring of frustration from Congressional Democrats and young voters, who took to social media apps like TikTok in droves to criticize Biden.

The approval was granted for ConocoPhillips’ Willow drilling project by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which authorized as many as three drill sites and 199 total wells. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who had opposed the project as a member of Congress, did not sign the order, but her deputy Tommy Beaudreau, who grew up in Alaska, did. Haaland released a video on Monday night addressing the project, emphasizing the Biden administration's moves to combat climate and move toward renewable energy, and saying they had "limited decision space."

"We focused on how to reduce the project's footprint and minimize the impacts to people and wildlife. What was approved reflects a substantially smaller project than ConocoPhillips originally proposed — a 40% reduction," she said. "They're also relinquishing nearly 70,000 acres of their leases, land that will no longer be developed. President Biden has done more than any other in our history to invest in our nation's lands, water, and clean energy."

The Willow project is expected to produce as many as 180,000 barrels of oil a day and create up to 2,500 temporary jobs during construction, and 300 long-term jobs. It will generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and royalties for federal, state and local governments, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, the BLM estimates the project’s combined construction, operation, and total combustible fuel output will account for 239 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses over the 30 year lifespan, which is about equal to the combined emissions of 1.7 million passenger cars on the road every year. The United States emits about 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the second most of any country (behind China).

The project is broadly supported by both of Alaska's Republican senators and its lone House representative, Democrat Mary Peltola. It also enjoys support from many indigenous groups in Alaska. Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, whose members span the region, said there was "majority consensus" in favor of the project.

However, City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of 525 people lives closest to the planned project, has been an outspoken opponent of the drilling.

“My constituents and community will bear the burden of this project with our health and our livelihoods,″ she said.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right praise the move, saying the U.S. needs more domestic production and it could ultimately be a net positive for the environment.
  • Some argue the project was long delayed, and frame even the limited approval as a miracle.
  • Others say we are going to use this oil anyway, and it's better to produce it ourselves than rely on foreign countries.

In The Washington Examiner, Tom Joyce said the project was "a gift" to the environment.

"Over two dozen environmental groups issued a joint statement Monday opposing the measure. They said the move once 'again demonstrates how political and industry interests put ‘business as usual’ before the health of people and the planet.' Whether or not environmentalists want to admit it, though, approving new drilling in Alaska is a green move," Joyce said. "More domestic oil production will benefit the United States. It could reduce costs for consumers and help the country avoid energy shortages. However, it also has some environmental benefits. U.S. oil has better environmental standards and a lower carbon footprint than oil from other countries.

"A barrel of crude U.S. oil will emit 89 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is lower than the global average of 95 kilograms, according to the Brookings Institution. Therefore, the U.S. can cut its carbon emissions by using domestic oil rather than importing it from people who hate us," he wrote. "Plus, purchasing oil from foreign countries can enrich countries that sponsor terrorism, such as Iran. The U.S. should avoid commerce with such countries whenever possible. The Earth is warming, and humans contribute to the problem. Reducing emissions where economically feasible is a good idea. However, the U.S. needs oil. Millions of people drive gas-powered cars, and commerce depends on a trucking industry powered by gasoline. That will not change soon, so the country should seek out oil with a lower carbon footprint, such as American oil."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board praised the administration for approving a "long delayed" drilling plan in Alaska.

"The decision should have been easy after it passed every review known to the federal government. The project is projected to yield as much as 180,000 barrels of oil a day and will provide much-needed domestic oil production. The White House leaked the decision late Friday, and the climate lobby erupted in anger and tried to change it," the board wrote. "Earthjustice said it 'greenlights a carbon bomb,' Al Gore piped up, and the climate left talked ominously about a presidential primary challenge. To calm the hysterics, the Administration leaked over the weekend that it will also put much of the rest of Alaska off limits to any drilling, creating a 'firewall' against future production.

"Firewall? The Willow project takes up 0.002% of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve and is expected to bring 2,500 new jobs in the state," they wrote. "The plan has broad political support in Alaska, including the state’s indigenous leaders and Alaska’s bipartisan Congressional delegation. The Biden Administration remains hostile to nearly all domestic fossil-fuel production, and political realism says Willow is the exception that proves that rule. The White House knows a primary challenge from the left is unlikely, and its bigger concern is the opening for a GOP challenger if there is a surge in oil prices after Mr. Biden has sat on all drilling in the U.S. Whatever the political calculation, the Willow decision is a great relief to Alaskans and an economic boon to America."

In RealClearEnergy, Rick Whitbeck, the Alaska State Director for Power The Future, asked if you believe in miracles?

"It took an extra 27 months, cost Alaska two full seasons of exploration, and the United States untold revenues and domestic supply, but the decision on Alaska’s Willow development project was a win for labor unions, Native organizations, Legislature, Governor Mike Dunleavy and the entire Congressional delegation, who all voiced strong and consistent support for Willow," Whitbeck said. "On the losing side were Lower-48-based environmental organizations, with their form-letter armies and TikTok crowds attempting to sway the eco-centric leadership that dominates the Biden White House. With the gap between our nation’s oil supply and demand around 8 million barrels a day, one would think adding domestic barrels to the equation would be a no-brainer.

"However, the influence of the rabid, radical groups and ideologues who fought the project for over a decade were more interested in perpetuating a false narrative than helping America," Whitbeck wrote. "To them, Willow represented a ‘carbon bomb’ – a dangerous and unnecessary project – whose ultimate approval and build-out would exacerbate the ‘climate crisis’. They used their influence with the Biden administration to force a new review of Willow, even though the project had traversed the entire federal permitting process, with its initial Record of Decision issued in November 2020... Unfortunately for America, Team Biden did trade off short-term gain for long-term pain in making the decision... His decision to permanently protect nearly 13 million of the NPR-A’s 23 million acres from future development will harm Alaska’s energy future."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is mostly critical of the move, saying Biden broke one of his clearest campaign promises.
  • Some emphasize the difficult spot he was put in by world events, and the sensible reasons to approve the project.
  • Others argue it is a shortsighted decision that will do more harm than good.

In Vox, Rebecca Leber said Biden is breaking a big climate promise.

"The same president who passed the nation’s biggest law ever to slash climate pollution may have just undone part of that legacy," Leber wrote. "The Biden administration gave the green light on Monday to one of the largest-ever oil projects on public lands. The approval clears the way for one of the world’s largest oil companies, ConocoPhillips, to start construction on the Willow project in northern Alaska in a matter of days... The approval marks the biggest about-face the president has made on his 2020 campaign pledge that he would be 'banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.'... The administration tried to cushion the blow for climate activists with other moves... But anti-Willow Native advocates don’t see these concessions as adequate.

"'The true cost of the Willow project is to the land and to animals and people forced to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water,' said a statement from Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, an Indigenous grassroots group. 'While out-of-state executives take in record profits, local residents are left to contend with the detrimental impacts of being surrounded by massive drilling operations.' ... [Activists are] angry for a simple reason: The world already has too much oil and can’t afford more if it has any hope to tackle runaway global warming," Leber said. "Over its expected life span, it will add 278 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the equivalent of creating 70 new coal plants for a year, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas calculator. The size alone makes the Willow Project a 'carbon bomb' in environmentalists’ view."

In Bloomberg, Liam Denning emphasized the challenges Biden faced and the reasons he has for approving the project.

"Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminded Americans that their gasoline pumps are still ultimately tethered to some unsavory regimes. It reminded Democrats that pump prices, which hit a record last summer, can be politically toxic. Biden’s unprecedented release of 180 million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) was his antidote," Denning wrote. "In a perfect world, the scientific consensus on climate change would have been broadly accepted decades ago and efficient economic solutions like a carbon tax put in place to shift our energy preferences. In the world we’ve got, US climate policy has lurched forward via a knife-edge vote in the Senate on subsidies and any politician hoping to force further action just by stymieing fossil-fuel production in today’s market must be sick of their job.

"While Willow has, similar to Keystone, become a climate cause célèbre, denying it would be a tacit gift to Russia and its OPEC+ partners; not to mention strange politics after that SPR drawdown," he wrote. "There are similar tensions at the local level... It is notable that, alongside representatives of the local Iñupiat people and regional government, Mary Peltola, Alaska’s sole representative in Congress, who is a Democrat and former tribal judge, has also endorsed Willow. In weighing that, Biden must bear in mind that Alaska is also home to large deposits of minerals critical to his US-made decarbonization effort, such as graphite, cobalt and rare earth metals. Any hopes of developing those rest on Washington’s relations with the local communities that must ultimately lend support and labor to and, in some cases, own a direct stake in such projects. Besides Russia, the White House has reasons to give Willow the nod that are much closer to home."

In the University of Maryland student newspaper, the Diamondback, Kyra Freeman argued that Biden's drilling project is shortsighted.

"When President Joe Biden promised no new drilling, it’s too bad we couldn’t look behind the podium and see he was crossing his fingers," Freeman wrote. "Concern comes from projected harm to the environment as the oil that will be produced over the 30 years of development is estimated to create greenhouse gases the equivalent of two million gas powered cars. That amount of pollution more than eliminates all emissions saved by the U.S.’ renewable energy projects. The environmental effects would be especially harmful to those who live in Alaska. With the Arctic warming at four times the global rate, many have already noticed ice thinning and unusual changes in wildlife due to warmer temperatures. Members of the Nuiqsut community, which is closest to the proposed drilling site, have stood in strong opposition.

"They have argued the development would endanger wildlife and consequently threaten Nuiqsut food security as well as threaten cultural traditions of fishing and hunting," Freeman said. "State lawmakers and other Indigenous groups, such as Iñupiat advocacy groups, [are] in favor of the jobs and revenue the project would bring to the area. However, these benefits are often over-inflated and don’t consider loop-holes and tax write-offs that might result in Alaska’s state revenue declining for the first decade of drilling... ConocoPhillips, the company in charge of the WIllow Project itself, claims the construction is estimated to only create about 2,000 jobs, with merely 300 permanent ones. This is relatively large for the North Slope’s small population of about 11,000 individuals, but ConocoPhillips has stated most jobs will be filled by non-locals. This job count is also likely to be overstated, as oil companies have done in the past."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I have very mixed feelings about all this, but don't know what a better option was.
  • Ultimately, Biden is taking an "all of the above" approach that I support right now.
  • It's still hard not to feel deep concerns for the planet and the local Alaskan ecosystem.

For starters, Biden is breaking a promise. Regardless of how you feel about the outcome here, career politicians saying one thing and then doing the complete opposite is precisely why so many people are so cynical about our politics. “No more drilling on federal lands, period," Biden said on the campaign trail. "Period, period, period.” That was Joe Biden — over and over.

On Monday, he approved a gigantic, $8 billion plan to extract 600 million barrels of oil from untouched federal land in Alaska. It will be the largest drilling project on public land in the U.S., and one of the largest ever.

Uh... whoops?

The extractions for environmentalists that Biden laid out — designating 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea as off limits, restricting drilling on another 13 million acres of land, and negotiating with ConocoPhillips to relinquish 68,000 acres of leases — are fine if you're on the environmentalist side. But they're also pretty unexciting. Any future administration will have avenues to reverse them, and offshore drilling in the Arctic isn't an especially appealing logistical prospect for Big Oil anyway. Such a project likely wouldn't produce its first barrel until 2040 at the earliest, and oil companies don’t seem that interested in investing in a project with a long maturation period right now.

The real concession was slashing the size of the project by 40% and reducing the number of drill sites. Though that, too, is cold comfort for anyone worried about carbon emissions who is going to see the headlines about the biggest drilling project on public land in the U.S.

There are also parts of the whole thing that are just devastating from a conservation perspective. On a personal level, I don't know how you can see the land where this drilling is going to happen and not feel some pang of deep sadness. The photo in this article shows an exploratory drill site — it's a photo ConocoPhillips published:

Of course, Biden does have a few things going for him.

The biggest — and the thing I'd emphasize if I were in the administration — is this may have been a losing battle either way. Legal experts from across the political spectrum have said that since ConocoPhillips had already won leases to this land and done the necessary work to drill, if Biden had tried to stop them he probably would have lost in court. Rather than issue the permits, the government could have been on the hook not just for investments ConocoPhillips made, but for future profits — a reward that could have climbed into the billions of dollars. According to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), that realization was a big reason why Biden decided to let it happen.

“There was no way around the fact that these were valid existing lease rights,” she told The New York Times. “The administration was going to have to deal with that reality.”

Other talking points are valid, too. All three Alaska members of Congress wanted the deal. Indigenous groups largely supported it. And, of course, we need oil production. Arguments about job gains ring hollow for me given how few permanent jobs this will create and the fact those numbers are usually fudged and end up not going to locals (though local tribes will profit from this). Pragmatic takes on where we'll actually get this oil if we don't produce it ourselves do resonate, though. I was particularly moved by Tom Joyce's argument (under "What the right is saying") that we're going to end up using this oil anyway — so we might as well be the ones to produce it, given we'll do it more ethically and with lower emissions than would the foreign adversaries we'd have to rely on otherwise.

But there are two sticking points I just can't shake.

The first is the locals who are staunchly opposed to this and will be most impacted by it. Imagine a giant oil company arriving in your neighborhood, buying a plot of land a quarter mile from your house, and announcing it was going to erect a bunch of oil rigs, tanks, roads, and ship in thousands of out-of-towners to work there, trampling through the neighborhood with giant mack trucks and construction equipment for the next, say, 30 years. I doubt you'd be thrilled. Take a drive through Midland-Odessa, Texas, and see what exploring the Permian Basin has done to that area, and you might be more sympathetic. This is all even more potent if you are the kind of people who hunt, fish, and extract water from the land getting destroyed.

And then there's the "carbon bomb." I'm not some Green New Deal environmental extremist. I don't think you should stop having kids because of climate change, nor do I think it is heroic to kill yourself in the name of the planet. But climate change is happening, it's getting worse, and at some point we have to stop producing and consuming oil the way we are. Yes, China and India are polluting too. Yes, the developing world is overly reliant on coal. I know all this.

That’s why I've expressed my support for an "all of the above" energy approach in Tangle, and in many ways I think that’s what this is. Biden is investing in a clean energy future and changing our infrastructure to receive that energy, while in the present something like this brings oil production home domestically, reducing its net carbon impact and giving us more control over it.

Is that my preferred method for how all this goes? No. I’d really love it if Tesla dropped a $10,000 electric vehicle tomorrow and we could all link up to an efficient grid powered by some offshore windfarm for electricity. But that’s not the world we’ve got (yet).

Part of me would have been happy to see Biden reject the permits and take this thing to court after years of slowing it down, and I’m sure environmentalists would have loved to see him go to the mat with Big Oil. But for what? It probably would have been futile. And while I worry about the drilling’s impact on the land, I also know when we go to the same area for the minerals we’ll need for electric cars or solar panels we’re going to run into some localized environmental problems, too.

None of this is easy. We have a production vs. usage gap, we should strive to be energy independent, and we have to accept the reality that we'll need to slowly draw down our oil production and use as we move toward a future where we're polluting less and still covering our energy needs. This decision feels both pragmatic and disappointing, something that isn’t a win for the planet but might have been the best option on the table.

Your questions, answered.

Q: It seems like most of the people you quote in “what the right/left is saying” are members of the mainstream media. From your writing it does seem like you’re aware of the work of prominent journalists who have left MSM like Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss—is there a reason that you don’t seem to quote them?

— Jessica from New York City

Tangle: Yes, I am definitely aware of them! I have quoted Matt Taibbi extensively in Tangle, though it's been a while since he was under "What the left is saying" (which is where I'd put him, by the way). Taibbi and I have actually held public discussions on journalism together. I just emailed him the other day to come on the podcast and discuss the Twitter files, but no response yet (Matt, if you're reading this, write me back).

Bari, too, is someone whose work I respect, though she is writing a lot less these days. It seems like she is mostly focused on her podcast, “Honestly,” which is very good — and on building out her own media company. Like Weiss and Taibbi, I was an early adopter on Substack before moving to Ghost, an independent publishing platform; and like them, I'm a journalist now trying to build my own media company. Unlike them, I was not hugely popular before going independent, so I've got a little catching up to do.

Either way, I think we do pretty regularly quote independent journalists and writers like Taibbi and Weiss. Just recently, on the left, Noah Smith, Ryan Grim, and Matthew Yglesias have both appeared regularly in Tangle with writing from their independent newsletters. And on the right, we've quoted folks like Ryan Girdusky and Brad Polumbo, who have both created their own media platforms. Today, we quoted a student journalist, since so many of the voices opposed to the pipeline are young Americans. We try to get as many different voices in here as we can.

Specific to Taibbi and Weiss, the reason they may not regularly fall into the Tangle format is that they are often producing something closer to journalism than opinion pieces or arguments, which kind of culls their writing a bit. But you'll definitely see them pop up now and again.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Boeing has just won a massive, $37 billion deal from Saudi Arabia that will build a new airline to compete with Emirates, Qatar. The deal has the potential to create one million jobs in the United States across 44 states, including 150,000 jobs in manufacturing. Saudi Arabia could purchase as many as 78 jets from Boeing. The new airline, funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, will be called Riyadh Air, and it plans to connect more than 100 destinations around the world by 2030. The deal comes as U.S. and Saudi officials are working to repair ties between the countries, which have recently hit new lows over oil fights and the killing of journalist Jamaal Khashoggi. Bloomberg has the story.

Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

On the left, people missed a story about NYPD officers resigning in record numbers.

On the right, people missed a story about children of same-sex parents seeing outcomes as good or better than heterosexual couples.


  • 180,000. The number of barrels of oil a day the Willow Project could produce.
  • 1.5%. The percentage of all U.S. oil production that would represent.
  • 499,700. The number of barrels of oil a day that flow through the trans-Alaska pipeline.
  • 2.1 million. The number of barrels of oil a day that used to flow through that pipeline in the late 1980s.
  • ~250 million. The number of gas-powered cars and trucks currently on the road in the U.S.
  • ~1.7 million. The number of gas-powered cars the emissions from the Willow Project would represent.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we were writing about the return of earmarks.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter: Slate's story on the tantrum thrown by venture capitalists.
  • Cool as a cucumber: 75% of Tangle readers said they had not considered withdrawing their money from their bank at all. 17.61% said they considered it "a little bit." Less than 1% said they were considering it strongly or had.
  • Nothing to do with politics: I'm running a March Madness pool for my friends. There is a $10 buy-in (via Venmo or PayPal). This might be a huge mistake, but I thought it'd be fun to juice the pot by posting it in Tangle. You can join here. Don't forget to pay!
  • Take the poll: Was Biden right to approve this new drilling project? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

In Australia, a large research project studying endangered species has just taken 29 of them off the endangered list — a major milestone for conservation efforts. All of the animals can be safely delisted, the researchers said, including "the golden, Western barred, and Eastern barred bandicoots, Western quoll, sooty albatross, waterfall frog, Flinders Range worm-lizard, yellow-footed rock wallabies, greater bilby, humpback whale, growling grass frog, Murray’s cod, and others," Good News Network reported. I don't know what most of those animals are, but I like the sound of them. Australia, because of its incredible biodiversity and how many creatures are unique to the continent, has been a major focus of endangered species conservation for decades. The paper was published in Science. You can read about it here.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.