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Vista Projects

Biden Trades Alaskan Oil Tomorrow for Progressive Votes Today

These translations are done via Google Translate

The logic at play is simple: New restrictions in the National Petroleum Reserve won’t raise pump prices this summer but could motivate the younger voters the president needs.

Reserve or preserve?
Alaska Wilderness
Reserve or preserve?

President Joe Biden’s approach to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska puts ever heavier emphasis on the reserving bit. “Preserve” might be more of an accurate description at this point. The White House just announced a final rule effectively preventing oil development across more than half the 23 million acre area on Alaska’s North Slope. It is the latest chapter in Biden’s tightrope walk between pump prices and progressives’ priorities.

The NPR-A was set aside in 1923 as a strategic source of potential oil supply for the US Navy, with administration passed to the Department of the Interior by Congress in 1976. That legislation directed Interior to “conduct an expeditious program of competitive leasing of oil and gas in the Reserve.” The NPR-A’s “special areas” — particularly sensitive parts of the reserve — are afforded “maximum protection,” but only “to the extent consistent with the requirements of this Act.” In short, the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act sought to balance environmental concerns with the designated purpose of the NPR-A: A source of potential oil supply.

The new rule tilts the balance heavily toward conservation, either by putting resources off-limits or making development impractical through restrictions on associated infrastructure (drilling on the North Slope requires miles of raised pipelines, gravel roads and landing strips). It also provides Interior the scope to place restrictions on future drilling decisions under very broad considerations; for example, “any uncertainty concerning the nature, scope, and duration of potential effects.”

With the Supreme Court already whittling away at federal agencies’ regulatory scope on pollution, I feel little uncertainty as to what it might make of such powers. Court challenges are a virtual certainty.

Yet, in political terms, that may be beside the point.

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Interior announced the review that led to the new rule in the wake of Biden’s approval last year of the controversial Willow oil project in the NPR-A. Despite Biden’s green agenda, blocking Willow would have been legally problematic and, coming soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, $5 gasoline and a huge release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, politically bizarre. Still, this was a cause celebre of environmental groups and the administration, facing blowback, leavened the decision by reducing the number of Willow’s drilling sites and also banning drilling in a large swath of federal waters off Alaska’s northern coast. Plus, this eventual new rule.

What unites these measures, along with another recent green-leaning pause on licenses for new liquefied natural gas terminals, is that they don’t impact fuel supply in the near term. Alaska, which rivaled Texas for oil production during the 1980s, is much diminished, accounting for about 3% of US oil supply. The remoteness, short drilling seasons and, yes, political risk make new oil development in Alaska expensive and time consuming. Even Willow, which benefits from the large, existing footprint of its operator, ConocoPhillips, will likely have taken about 13 years from discovery to first barrels when it starts up. Blocking off a chunk of the NPR-A will not affect pump prices this summer.

There is a risk for Biden in terms of perception here. The Ukraine war is ongoing and new tensions in the Middle East have arisen, leaving the White House juggling a complex, and volatile, mixture of sanctions, foreign policy objectives and the potential for oil spikes between now and November. Accusing Biden of leaving US oil in the ground and handing more power to adversarial petrostates is a lay-up for Republicans, especially if a price spike leads Biden to tap the SPR again. Average gasoline prices have risen by about 60 cents, or a fifth, so far this year. At about $3.68 a gallon, though, they are level with where they were a year ago, so the administration may be hoping to avoid a bigger crisis in the next several months.

The new rule did unite the Alaskan political establishment, its Congressional delegation, Indigenous representatives and the oil industry in opposition. As much as Alaska’s wilderness requires careful conservation and, given its Arctic and sub-Arctic location, it is feeling the brunt of climate change, its economy and public finances, especially in Alaska Native villages on the North Slope, remain tied to oil.

Again, however, raw political calculus appears at play. This is a red state with only the rarest flashes of blue. Alaska hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since LBJ and has two Republicans senators today. Current Representative Mary Peltola — the state’s only member of Congress and an Alaska Native — is the first Democrat to win that seat in half a century. Like Biden, she walks a tightrope on conservation and development. She opposed the new NPR-A rule. But a key part of her platform revolved around conservation; namely addressing a crisis in subsistence fishing in Indigenous villages in Western Alaska, where there is now also opposition to a proposed gold mining project for fear of polluting local fisheries.

From the perspective of Washington, however, even if the new rule were to present a problem for Peltola’s campaign, that is just one Congressional seat at risk. Against this, Biden must hope being seen to protect a vast swath of wilderness will motivate the younger voters he needs in battleground states in the Lower 48. One aspect of Alaska, and the Arctic writ large, is that it exerts a powerful symbolism for far more people who will never see it, versus the relative few who actually live and work there. To summarize the White House’s logic at play here: The new rule won’t raise pump prices this summer, could swing the election in November and, if the green agenda pans out, will block barrels in the long-term that wouldn’t be needed anyway.

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