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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Many young voters bitter over Biden’s support of Willow oil drilling

A ConocoPhillips drilling site on the North Slope of Alaska, March 22, 2023. Despite his aggressive moves to try to slash greenhouse gas emissions, President Joe Biden has angered young climate voters with his decision to approve Willow, an $8 billion oil-drilling project on pristine federal land in Alaska.

By Lisa Friedman

In the past three weeks, President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed regulations to speed the transition to electric vehicles, committed $1 billion to help poor countries fight climate change and prepared what could be the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

And yet, many young voters alarmed by climate change remain angry with Biden’s decision last month to approve Willow, an $8 billion oil drilling project on pristine federal land in Alaska. As the president announced his bid for reelection on Tuesday, it was not at all clear that those voters who helped him win in 2020 because of his commitment to climate action will turn out again.

Alex Haraus, 25, said he and other young people felt betrayed by the Willow decision, after Biden had pledged as a candidate that he would end new oil drilling on public lands “period, period, period.”

Haraus, whose videos on TikTok opposing the Willow project amassed hundreds of thousands of views, described his reaction as “mad and frustrated and disappointed.”

About a dozen young climate activists interviewed said they were not assuaged by the other actions by the Biden administration, even if they significantly draw down greenhouse gas emissions that are dangerously heating the planet, Haraus said. What they want, he said, is for the president to rein in oil and gas companies, which enjoyed record profits last year.

“I don’t think any of those things encourage people to forgive the Biden administration for projects like Willow,” said Haraus, who lives outside Chicago. “Young voters see our future getting thrown out the window. We need Biden to take on the industry, otherwise there’s not much for us to hope for.”

Young voters overwhelmingly — about 62% — support phasing out fossil fuels entirely, said Alec Tyson, an associate director of research at Pew Research Center. There is broad support among registered voters of both parties for a transition to a future in which the United States is no longer pumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere, Tyson said. But most are not willing to break with fossil fuels altogether, he said.

From his earliest days in office, Biden has highlighted climate action as a top priority. Soon after moving into the White House, he reentered the United States in the Paris Agreement and set an ambitious goal of cutting the country’s emissions roughly 50% below 2005 levels by the end of this decade.

He signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides $370 billion in incentives to expand wind, solar and other clean energy and electric vehicles. He has proposed rules to ensure that two-thirds of new cars and one-quarter of new heavy trucks sold in the United States by 2032 are all-electric. Within weeks, he is expected to require that coal and gas plants, responsible for 25% of the country’s greenhouse gases, significantly cut their emissions.

Yet lawmakers and activists said they worried that regulatory moves would not capture the imagination of voters and that the Willow project would cast a long shadow.

“He takes one step forward with the IRA, and two steps back with the Willow project,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who along with more than 30 other progressive lawmakers has urged Biden to cancel the drilling permit.

Nationwide, 61% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Biden in 2020, while 36% voted for Donald Trump, according to an analysis from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonpartisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University. That’s higher than the level of youth support Hillary Rodham Clinton received from young voters in 2016.

A March poll from Data for Progress, a liberal research group, saw a 13% drop in Biden’s approval ratings when it came to his climate agenda among voters ages 18 to 29 in the aftermath of the Willow decision.

But administration officials said they had seen no evidence that the president had lost ground with climate voters, or even young voters. They pointed to polls by YouGov and Morning Consult taken after the Willow decision that showed roughly half of Americans supported it. The Morning Consult survey found about 30% of young voters had not even heard of the Willow project.

“President Biden has been delivering on the most ambitious climate agenda ever with the support of labor groups, environmental justice and climate leaders, youth advocates, and more,” a White House spokesperson, Abdullah Hasan, said in a statement.

For years, the Willow project remained under the public’s radar, even among environmental activists. When social media campaigns objecting to Willow galvanized millions of activists early this year, it surprised administration officials, several people involved in the campaign said.

Mark Paul, a political economist at Rutgers University, said that while the Biden administration has a strong plan for reducing demand, it needs complementary policies that slash production.

“We already have enough fossil fuels to meet our needs as we transition,” he said. “The administration is scared to use the bully pulpit against oil and gas. It’s trying to play both sides.”

Michele Weindling, electoral director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental group, said young people want to see Biden fight.

“This was a cultural moment for my generation,” Weindling said of Willow.

“It was a huge moment to say ‘No’ to the oil and gas industry,” she said. “It was a moment for President Biden to show us, what side are you on? He chose the wrong side. That makes our job a lot harder, to tell Generation Z and young voters that Biden will live up to his climate promises.”

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