Looming Arctic oil sale reveals political risks for Biden

By Heather Richards | 02/14/2024 06:53 AM EST

The sale threatens to anger the president’s base this fall when he is counting on support from environmentalists in key districts.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and President Biden

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska (left); President Joe Biden speaking in Washington this month (right). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/AFP via Getty Images; Evan Vucci/AP (Biden)

A congressionally mandated oil lease sale in the Arctic looms over President Joe Biden’s 2024 election campaign, threatening to revive attacks on the administration’s energy record as the president is looking to his environmental base for crucial support.

Because of a 2017 tax law, the White House must hold the sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by December, forcing the president to advance potential crude oil development on untrammeled lands that he once promised to protect from drilling.

It’s a tricky political mandate as climate is expected to be a deciding issue in 2024 for many environmentalists and younger voters who are already angry about White House’s policies on oil and gas drilling.


“He can’t throw a bone to young people Monday, cave to oil and gas millionaires Tuesday, and expect to get young people to turn out for him,” said Stevie O’Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, a climate organization.

The coming sale underscores the political challenge for Biden as he simultaneously aims to get high turnout from his base, woo independents who may be sympathetic to Republican arguments on drilling and faces an electorate that appears largely unaware of his climate record.

Some of Biden’s signature efforts on climate policy, such as the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, have failed to gain traction with the public. A Yale University poll released in December found that 58 percent of voters had heard a “little” about the law.

Meanwhile, Biden has repeatedly made compromises to allow drilling on public lands amid record highs in U.S. oil production, moves that have been unpopular on the political left.

While the administration has cut new leasing on public lands dramatically, it has approved more than 9,000 new oil or gas wells in Biden’s first three years in office, eclipsing the Trump administration’s record. The president was slammed by environmental groups for scheduling three offshore oil auctions between 2025 and 2029, although it was the smallest offshore oil plan in U.S. history.

Last year, the Interior Department also approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow oil project in the Arctic, which greens have said would be an emissions nightmare. The administration defended the decision — and the new oil and gas wells — as necessary because the White House likely lacked the legal authority to block ConocoPhillips’ existing development rights.

Biden canceled leases sold in the refuge during the Trump administration, but the Bureau of Land Management confirmed in an email that they intend to proceed with a second sale this year, per the tax law.

“The Biden administration made the right decision last year by canceling leases in the Arctic refuge, and there’s no question it should do the same for the second lease sale this year,” said Cooper Freeman, Alaska representative at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Alaska is ground zero for climate change, and Biden’s already stained his record there with the approval of the Willow project.”

The pushback is raising concerns among Biden supporters that climate-focused Democratic voters could stay home in November and help give an edge to the Republican nominee in key districts.

Still, some observers say an Arctic refuge sale could fly under the radar during the general election, with issues such as former President Donald Trump’s indictments and global conflicts in the Ukraine and the Gaza Strip being in the forefront. Environmentalists also may still show up for Biden to block what they view as a worse alternative.

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate official, said Biden has made huge strides on climate policy and won’t get the blame for energy issues he inherited like the Arctic oil program. Meanwhile, the refuge has lost its political punch outside of environmental circles on the far left as industry interest in drilling there wanes, he said.

“They’ll try to dramatize the irony that the climate-friendly president may be forced to do this. But the truth of the matter is that it’s very unlikely that any of those leases are going to end up resulting in production,” he said. “ANWR just isn’t the live policy issue that it once was.”

The White House did not provide a comment by press time. In a statement, BLM said “before holding a lease sale [the agency] needs to complete and publish its final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and issue a Record of Decision on the leasing program.”

“The BLM will follow the law and meet the Tax Act’s requirement to hold another lease sale by December 2024,” it said.

Winning the TikTok crowd

A political wild card is how the president’s actions to limit oil and gas, like his announced pause on new liquefied natural gas export approvals last month, might blunt young voters’ anger over other administration decisions.

“Young, climate voters actually have a pretty rosy view of the president at the moment, because there’s been so much celebration of this LNG pause,” said Dana Fisher, director of the Center for Environment, Community and Equity at American University and author of “Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action.”

The Biden administration is scrambling for those kinds of political signals this year because it is polling poorly with climate voters, she said.

The administration learned a lesson, particularly about young voters, because of backlash from the Willow project approval in 2023, she said.

That $8 billion drilling project got broad backlash partly because of several social media campaigns by environmental groups and paid environmental influencers. Despite those organizing efforts, the Biden administration greenlit Willow in early 2023, and disappointment with the president was widespread on online platforms like TikTok.

“They are ridiculously aware of every single movement online, and they’re paying attention and following and keeping track of what these influencers are saying,” said Fisher of the administration.

Oil and gas opponents are hoping to wield the White House’s anxious attention in their favor by critiquing the president’s energy policies through social media and other campaigns.

“Biden must stand up to Trump and the oil lobby and refuse to sell more of ANWR for oil and gas development,” said O’Hanlon with the Sunrise Movement. “The U.S. produced more fossil fuels than ever before in 2023. There’s no excuse for Biden approving a single other fossil fuel project.”

Still, Fisher said Biden is unlikely to budge from his “all of the above” energy strategy, partly to avoid thwarting the industry in an election year.

She said she fears there will be long-term political cost to Democrats for Biden’s approach of trying to both satisfy climate organizers and keep oil and gas flowing in the nation.

“A lot of young people are taking the bait,” she said of the LNG pause. “What’s going to happen when they all realize that this is all symbolic gesturing for partisan politics … and are they going to just give up on the Democratic Party?”

‘On a tightrope’

ANWR is sparking pushback against Biden from the political right, too.

Influential members of Congress like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have hammered administration officials on Capitol Hill over canceling leases from the Trump administration’s 2021 sale in the refuge.

Murkowski, who inked the 2017 tax law provision mandating two oil sales, said she’s worried the administration’s attempt to unravel the first auction has already dealt a blow to the refuge’s attraction for industry investment.

“Think about it from the perspective of a company who’s looking to bid,” Murkowski said in an interview. “Why would you bid if you thought that you’re going to put good money down, you’re going to be successful with it. And then your own government was going to say, sorry, never mind.”

Republicans are likely to continue turning the energy screw on the administration where they can, accusing the president of failing in his commitment to U.S. energy security and tying his climate policies to high energy prices.

Frank Maisano, a senior principal at the law firm Bracewell, said if the administration can push action on the ANWR oil sale until after Nov. 5 to avoid the issue flaring up, it likely will.

“[In an election year], what happens after November, it becomes irrelevant,” Maisano said. “I don’t think they’re going to worry about it until they have to deal with it. And if they win reelection, the problem they’re going to have is dealing with Congress.”

The BLM will have to put out a notice of sale at least 30 days before the auction takes place. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 ordered the sale by Dec. 22, 2024, meaning a notice should be released by late November.

Maisano noted that the president politically leans more conservative than some of his advisers on energy issues, which has likely restrained him from policies that would fully win the support of climate and environmental groups.

He compared Biden’s long history as a politician on Capitol Hill — the president was a Democratic senator for Delaware from 1973 to 2009 — to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a supporter of fossil fuel development. Manchin has often played a role as the Democratic swing vote on Biden’s energy policies to the consternation of climate and clean energy activists.

“He’s on a tightrope,” Maisano said of Biden. “Environmentalists don’t trust him and don’t like him already, because they think he’s not their guy.”

Diminishing risks

One potential bright spot for Biden on the ANWR issue may be the documented disinterest from oil companies in buying oil rights in the region.

When Trump held the historic first ANWR sale in January of 2021, just three bidders participated, and one of them was an industrial development financier associated with the Alaska government. That $14 million disappointment for pro-drilling Alaskans reaffirmed a shift away from the refuge for key players of the state’s oil industry.

Meanwhile, major banks, like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, have committed to refusing direct support for drilling in the Arctic due to its sensitivity to climate change. Additionally, environmental criticism is sure to hound any drillers who try to operate in the refuge.

Randy Ruaro, executive director of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), a semi-independent public corporation, said new exploration in the refuge made possible by federal lease sales could turn that story around.

The U.S. Geological Survey noted in 2021 that ANWR holds at least 4.3 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. The agency has said there could be more than 10 billion barrels. But the actual amount of oil that lies beneath its surface is not proven.

Results from a single test well drilled in the 1980s never have been made public. Two-dimensional seismic testing that’s been done in part of the refuge historically offers a limited picture compared to modern underground mapping technology that’s available.

AIDEA isn’t a developer itself, but more of a financial backer for industrial activity in the state.

That kind of relationship is what AIDEA is anticipating for the refuge oil leases — a partnership with drillers. The first step toward that is conducting 3D seismic surveys, a controversial technique due to its impact to the tundra and wildlife even though it provides an accurate depiction of the location of oil reserves.

“We want to get our advanced seismic to identify the real prospective areas. Then we’ll make decisions about how to handle development,” Ruaro said. “The exploration and the seismic is what we really want to delve into.”

AIDEA has sued the Biden administration to reinstate the leases it bought in the 2021 sale, saying Interior lacks the authority to revoke those drilling rights. The case is pending in the D.C. District Court.

The American Petroleum Institute also said in November comments on the Biden administration’s environmental review of the ANWR leasing program that the Interior Department has yet to prove that the first lease sale was invalid. The group said ANWR oil and gas resources are key to America’s oil future.

Still, Bledsoe argued that Alaska is overly optimistic in its depiction of ANWR’s development potential, and the refuge’s uncertain prospects will shield Biden from political blowback at the national level this year.

“I think the major environmental groups realize that this is not the threat it once seemed to be,” he said.

There is indeed a split among greens. Some mainstream environmental groups are pushing the administration to conduct a sale with strict provisions, rather than calling for the administration not to hold the sale at all.

They say the Biden administration has options to shape the refuge oil and gas program to reduce impacts, like putting limits on development activity where polar bear denning frequently occurs, adding time stipulations for when development can take place, and tightening the allowed total footprint of oil and gas infrastructure. The tax law limits oil and gas’ direct footprint to 2,000 surface acres, and environmental groups have argued that everything the industry touches from facilities to roads needs to count toward that limit.

“We believe that any leasing program needs to be extremely protective, and we have worked with our clients and partners through the public process to explain how this Administration can and must do more,” said Brook Brisson, senior staff attorney at Trustees for Alaska, in an email. Brisson added that oil and gas “has no place” in the refuge.

A leasing program with strict limits is expected by many of the oil industry’s supporters as a way for the Biden administration to stave off drilling without directly fighting Congress over the mandate from the 2017 tax law.

“We’re not really sure what that next lease sale is going to look like,” said Ruaro with AIDEA. “But we would anticipate some type of mischief.”

Reporter Kelsey Brugger contributed.