Newswise — It was a campaign promise climate activists applauded. During a town hall meeting in Hudson, New Hampshire, in early February 2020, Joe Biden took a question from a woman in the audience who asked the then-presidential candidate how he felt about oil drilling in Alaska. 

“No more drilling on federal lands, period,” Biden said. 

But Monday, in a decision many believe could tarnish Biden’s reputation as the nation’s first “climate president,” his administration approved ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil drilling project on pristine Alaskan land, angering climate groups who say the venture poses a threat to human health and the environment. 

By the Biden administration’s own estimates, the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution a year, which is equal to adding two million gasoline-powered automobiles to the nation’s roads. 

While the oil industry is cheering the greenlighting of the project, the battle could just be starting, as environmentalists will surely file lawsuits to stop it, according to University of Miami professor of law Jessica Owley. “Climate activists and other environmental and indigenous interests are rightfully outraged by this decision, and I anticipate a lawsuit challenging the issuance of the oil permits, which will need to be filed in the next 30 days,” said Owley, who directs the School of Law’s Environmental Law Program. 

The Trump administration approved the Willow project in 2020, but a federal judge blocked it a year later, saying that the analysis of the environmental impact of the project was flawed. 

Just what the basis of a new legal challenge would be is hard to predict, Owley said. “Previously the leases were stopped because of inadequate environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” she explained. “NEPA requires that federal agencies consider the environmental impacts of their actions. But there is no requirement under NEPA that the government choose environmentally protective alternatives or mitigate the harmful impacts of the actions,” she continued. “It is possible that some environmental groups will argue that there will be adverse impacts on threatened and endangered species, mostly likely the polar bear. It is also possible that tribal and youth activists will argue that the government is breaching a duty to protect the environment, but so far, such cases have not been successful.”

Monday’s Willow project decision, which approves three drilling sites and denies two others, comes on the heels of the Biden administration’s announcement to restrict oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Ocean and across Alaska’s North Slope. Such a move, however, is still unsatisfactory, said Owley, noting that a report by a New York-based think tank, the Rhodium Group, showed U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.3 percent in 2022.

“The Biden administration is suggesting that allowing [the Willow project] drilling will be tempered by prohibiting future drilling,” she said. “To meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement, the United States should be reducing oil extraction and consumption and focusing on facilitating renewable energy development.”

Owley called Monday’s decision “a betrayal” of Biden’s 2020 campaign promise. “The administration seems to believe that it had to issue the leases,” she said. “But mostly I think it is pressure from energy prices, perhaps tied to the war in Ukraine, that is driving this.”

Gregory Koger, professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the George P. Hanley Democracy Center, agreed that environmental groups will continue to fight the decision in the courts and hope for future administrative actions to slow or stop the project.

“Despite their disappointment on this project, the Biden administration can still credibly claim that the Inflation Reduction Act made a significant contribution to fighting climate change,” he said. “So, the administration feels its overall record on the issue is strong.”