President Joe Biden’s relationship with climate activists is starting to look something like a rollercoaster, with highs and lows, twists and turns and the occasional full stomach drop.
That tension was at its most public when a few dozen activists from Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate group, descended on the White House on Friday to demand Biden stand his ground and keep climate provisions in his infrastructure plan.
“We believed him when he said that climate change was the existential threat of our time. We believed him when he said that his jobs plan was going to be a once-in-a-generation investment in America,” Deirdre Shelly, campaign director at Sunrise, told HuffPost at the event. “And over the past few weeks, we’ve just seen his plan — our best shot right now at starting the decade of the Green New Deal — we’ve seen him make his plan small and weaker.”
Biden has been on shaky ground with the climate community before.
In May 2019, Reuters reported that the then-presidential candidate was eyeing a “middle ground” climate policy that would maintain a future for oil and gas, “appeal to both environmentalists and the blue-collar voters who elected Donald Trump” and “likely face heavy resistance from green activists.”
The backlash was fierce. Progressive supporters of the Green New Deal labeled Biden “Middle Ground Joe,” an unfavorable twist on his signature nickname “Middle Class Joe.”
Biden dismissed the criticism, defending both his record on climate in the Senate and his plan for addressing planet-altering climate change as president. “There is no middle ground about my plan,” he said during a Democratic debate in August 2019.
Many of the same organizations that hammered Biden on the campaign trail have cheered him as president, as he has outlined an aggressive path to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, boost renewable energy on federal lands and create millions of green union jobs.
The Sunrise Movement, which CNN called “an early winner in the Biden transition,” claimed victory when Biden issued a frenzy of early executive orders on climate. The moves made it “clear that President Biden hears our generation’s demands loud and clear, understands the power of our movement, and is serious about using executive power to deliver on his campaign promises,” the group said a week into Biden’s presidency.
But Sunrise and several other environmental groups have soured in recent weeks, as the administration has thrown its support behind major fossil fuel and mining projects and weighs leaving billions in climate funding out of its landmark infrastructure proposal in order to win over Republicans.
At the protest Friday, Sunrise Movement volunteers called on Biden to maintain funding to establish a Civilian Climate Corps, a New Deal-style program to fight climate change and protect and restore America’s public lands, and to sit down with youth organizers rather than negotiate with Republicans working to strip climate provisions from the administration’s proposal.
The International Energy Agency warned in a lengthy study published last month that investments in new oil and gas projects must immediately stop if governments are to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — a target that Biden has set for the U.S.
On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to “transition away from the oil industry.”
“The oil industry pollutes, significantly,” he said during one debate. “It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
But the Biden administration has worked to uphold a number of Trump-era energy projects. Less than two weeks after the International Energy Agency report came out, Biden’s Justice Department filed a brief in federal court defending the Trump administration’s decision to approve ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow Project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve last year. The $6 billion project, which is slated to produce 590 million barrels of oil over 30 years, has been a major priority of Alaska’s Republican delegation.
Conservative lawmakers and the fossil fuel industry applauded the Biden team’s stance.
What the White House has done so far “points to a lack of consistency across the Biden administration on their overall energy strategy,” said David Turnbull, a spokesman for Washington-based advocacy group Oil Change USA.
“If the Biden team were to take the advice of scientists and now the International Energy Agency, they’d rightly view any new fossil fuel projects as standing in the way of their climate objectives,” he said in an email. “Until the Biden administration gets serious about a just and managed phase out of fossil fuel production in the United States in line with what’s needed to limit warming to 1.5ºC, we’ll likely continue to see volatile decisions with environmental justice communities and workers as the primary victims.”
The Willow decision is particularly surprising given that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is in charge of managing fossil fuel development within the reserve and across federal lands, opposed Willow as a member of Congress last year. In a May 2020 letter, she and other Democratic lawmakers called for the Trump administration to “suspend any further action” on the project.
A spokesperson for the Interior Department said in a statement that the Trump-era approval “complied” with environmental standards in place at the time and noted that plaintiffs in the Willow case “did not challenge the Record of Decision within the time limitations associated with environmental review for projects” in the Alaska reserve.
That explanation has done little to satisfy conservationists.
Defending the project is “the exact opposite of the climate package that President Biden put forth during his campaign,” Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner and deputy legal director of Friends of the Earth, told HuffPost. The organization is one of several that has sued to stop the project, arguing that the Trump administration approved it without considering the climate impacts.
“It’s no secret that this project is meant to open the door to further development in the Western Arctic,” Templeton said in an email. “To say that we are disappointed is a gross understatement.”
When contacted about this story, the White House referred HuffPost to DOJ, which did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
This isn’t the only time the Biden team has disappointed an environmental community that has largely stood in his corner. In other court filings, the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, has lent its support to the Dakota Access Pipeline; more recently, it defended a controversial land exchange in Arizona that will allow Resolution Copper Mining LLC to move forward with developing a massive underground mine beneath a historic Apache cultural site. And the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Interior Department, is moving ahead with authorizing oil drilling just outside the boundary of Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, an area rich in paleontological sites.
The actions have earned Biden points with many of his critics in Congress, namely moderate Democrats and Republicans from fossil fuel-producing states.
“I sense there’s a lot more pragmatism there now,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who has repeatedly railed against Biden’s energy agenda, told The Wall Street Journal this week.
Environmental groups, on the other hand, see Biden’s moves as entirely out of step with his own goals.
“For him to do that with one hand and with the other say, ‘We’re going to cut emissions in half by 2030, I’m taking climate change seriously’ ... it just doesn’t make sense,” Shelly said. “You can’t do both of those things.”
Jeff Hauser, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, said politics may have played a role in Biden’s recent energy decisions, but that he expects they are primarily driven by Garland wanting to sustain as many of DOJ’s previous positions as possible.
“If you had a Department of Justice which was deeply committed to the environment and looking as hard as possible to find reasons to come out in the other direction, I’m quite sure they could have done so,” Hauser said. “The notion that the Trump Interior Department did everything right [on Willow] beggars belief.”
Climate advocacy and government watchdog groups have also knocked some of Biden’s recent environmental appointees over their ties to fossil fuels. Tommy Beaudreau, the president’s choice for deputy interior secretary, has a long list of potential conflicts of interest, including numerous former clients in the coal, oil, gas and renewable energy sectors. Beaudreau, an Interior Department official in the Obama administration, became the nominee for the No. 2 post after the White House backed away from its initial choice, Elizabeth Klein. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) signaled they’d vote against Klein’s nomination due to her past criticism of the fossil fuel sector, The Washington Post reported.
At least one of Biden’s top climate advisers, Philip Giudice, a longtime energy industry executive and consultant, remains invested in fossil fuel companies, according to a financial disclosure that the Revolving Door Project flagged to HuffPost. The document shows Guidice holds as much as a combined $150,000 in stock in Chevron, where he worked early in his career, NextEra Energy, which develops both renewable energy projects and fossil fuel pipelines, and Enbridge Energy, the company behind the controversial Line 3 natural gas pipeline project through Minnesota.
To be clear, conservationists have found a lot more to cheer for than to condemn during Biden’s first few months in office. Just this week, the administration suspended Trump-era oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a first step toward fulfilling a campaign pledge of “reversing Trump’s attacks” on the remote refuge. It has also paused new oil and gas leases on federal lands pending the outcome of a review of the federal leasing program and overturned more than 30 Trump-era environmental rollbacks, many of which benefited the oil and gas industry, according to a Washington Post tracker.
Still, climate advocates have made clear in recent weeks that they expect more from a president who made climate and environmental justice a central part of his campaign.
“The path forward is simple: Prioritize communities and listen to the science,” said Turnbull, of Oil Change USA. “That means stopping fossil fuel projects like Line 3 and all Arctic drilling, instituting a real climate test to ensure every project is evaluated against our climate goals, and mapping out a just and managed phase out of U.S. fossil fuel development to support communities as we move away from these dirty fuels.”