On the northern tundra of the Alaskan coastal plain lies the remote village of Nuiqsut, an Inupiat community with a dwindling population of approximately 400 residents. During the summer, herds of caribou trek past the village on their annual journey toward the coast to escape insects and find a safe environment to raise their young. Arctic char and trout abound in the tributaries of the nearby Colville River delta, and a scattering of tundra lakes in honeycomb patterns shelter songbirds and snowy owls.

The Inupiat residents of Nuiqsut rely on this rich ecological landscape for subsistence hunting and fishing, traditions that have underpinned the local economy since the village’s inception in 1974. But in the last two decades, the encroachment of oil drilling installations has threatened to destabilize and permanently dismantle the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Nuiqsut is situated on the perimeter of the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A) in Alaska’s North Slope, a vast 23-million-acre region in the northwest quadrant of the state managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Originally designated as a potential source of crude oil by President Warren G. Harding in 1923, the NPR-A remained largely untouched until the late 1990s, when the first oil and gas leases were signed. In 2019, the reserve generated over $56 million in oil and gas lease revenue.

That same year, 2019, was also the third-warmest on record since the mid-1800s. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached record-setting highs. Following a series of rollbacks on environmental legislation under the Trump administration, the United States appeared to be on an unrelenting trajectory toward complete climate disrepair. But under new political leadership, a climate breakthrough with the potential to entirely shift domestic energy policy seems like it should be on the horizon. 

The reality is more complex. A split Congress, the unrelenting dominance of the fossil fuel industry, and a myriad of conflicting political ideas on climate still stand in the way of a climate revolution. How can the U.S. pioneer action on the climate front given the existing challenges of bipartisan unity?

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In 2017, ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest crude oil producer, announced the discovery of a major new repository of oil in the northeast sector of the NPR-A. Months before his departure from the White House, President Donald Trump approved construction of the drilling infrastructure, an initiative nicknamed the Willow project. On the morning of Wednesday, January 20, mere hours before the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden, the first permits were issued to the corporation to mine for gravel to build roads on the project site. 

An assemblage of environmentalists, indigenous rights activists, and Alaskan community leaders hoped that President Biden’s stance on environmental protection and climate change legislation would reverse the course of the Trump-sanctioned ConocoPhillips endeavor. But on May 27, the Biden administration filed a brief in the U.S. District Court for Alaska, upholding the Trump administration’s decision to proceed with the Willow project. 

“This is especially disappointing coming from a president who promised to do better,” said Siqiñic Maupin, Executive Director of the organization Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic in Alaska, in an interview with the New York Times. Ostensibly at odds with Biden’s green energy agenda and progressive climate views, the endorsement of the Willow project signals a telling truth about the reality of the administration’s domestic climate strategy: Sustainable energy policy will always be hindered by the hegemonic power of the fossil fuel industry and its congressional allies. The question is whether that impediment will prevent climate action completely. 

In 2020, ConocoPhillips contributed $1,000,000 and $250,080 to the Senate Leadership Fund and Congressional Leadership Fund (respectively), two Republican super PACs aimed at building a conservative Senate majority. The total lobbying funds spent by the oil and gas industry in 2020 surpassed a startling $112 million. Beyond political lobbying dollars, major fossil fuel corporations funnel enormous sums of money into advertising campaigns, trade associations, and “dark money” operations, all forms of political leverage exacerbated by a series of court decisions in the 2010s that eliminated caps on independent expenditures by the oil and gas sector. There is no doubt that the unrivaled power of the fossil fuel industry lies at the heart of Biden’s upward battle against the climate catastrophe.

But that doesn’t make the crisis any less urgent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report highlighting the necessity of curtailing global carbon emissions to a maximum spike of 1.5 degrees Celsius, an ambitious goal that would require the U.S. to halve carbon emissions by 2030. The Biden administration cannot purport a façade of climate-progressive policies in line with this lofty target while insidiously fueling big oil drilling initiatives.

That is not to say that the Biden administration has not accomplished some legitimate climate victories. The administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, thwart the proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline, and suspend new gas or oil leases on federal lands and waters are all tangible climate triumphs. But the murky road toward true bipartisan climate consensus—where the conversation shifts from what Democrats can squeeze out of their narrow majorities to how the parties can bridge ideological divides unencumbered by the fossil fuel industry—is much more intricate. The opportunity for transformative climate policy was bolstered significantly by the Democratic victories in the Senate runoff elections in January 2021, but the pathway towards climate resiliency is still marred by the narrow 50-50 Senate split. While more progressive-leaning senators may be inclined to vote with Biden on climate change initiatives, it’s questionable that all Senate Democrats will be on board and unlikely any Republicans will be. 

According to William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Biden “can’t afford to take a pure position on climate” due to the lack of strong majorities in Congress. “That is the backdrop against which this president and the administration will be making trade-offs on every single issue.” 

Two moderate-leaning Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), likely hold the key to Biden’s ability to secure climate reform. Backed by the interests of conservative West Virginia voters and influential PACs tied to the oil, coal, and mining industries, Manchin will likely oppose substantive climate reform in favor of less extreme proposals. Likewise, Sinema believes in a more moderate approach to climate policy and has previously voted against the Green New Deal. Coupled with the rigidity of the 60-person Senate filibuster, the possibility that Biden will successfully navigate such convoluted political challenges to produce meaningful reform seems slim. But the obstacles are not insurmountable.

How should a climate-conscious Biden administration proceed without dangerously alienating salient conservative allies and disrupting the tenuous balance of power in the Senate? Achieving the global emissions cap set by the IPCC will be one of the most daunting challenges of the modern age, but does the prospect remain within the realm of possibility if Biden plays his political cards in a strategic manner? This will be the central focus of future pieces in this series. Initiatives such as a federal standard for clean electricity generation and the implementation of a carbon tax have captivated the attention of both conservative and liberal politicians. Could these strategies manage to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change before it’s too late? 

In any case, the defense of the extraction of millions of barrels of crude oil from pristine Alaskan wilderness cannot constitute part of the solution.

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Independent of the convoluted policy debates and legislative technicalities, the Alaskan climate will continue to warm. The state of Alaska is already warming at a rate twice that of the rest of the United States. The reverberations won’t be invisible: Alaska will see the disappearance of large quantities of sea ice, the destruction of vital ecosystems, and the calamitous rise of sea levels in the decades to come. Even ConocoPhillips recognizes the existing danger, with a plan to install artificial chilling agents called thermosyphons into the arctic permafrost to stabilize the temperature of the ice for the duration of the oil drilling. 

On the outskirts of Nuiqsut, the caribou populations are already beginning to shrink. The interconnected lattice of species and ecosystems on the Arctic coastal plain will eventually collapse. If Biden is serious about protecting the global climate and these vulnerable ecological treasures, his administration will need to pursue a calculated yet audacious approach toward a sustainable future.

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