Handcuffed Policymaking

Terry Schwadron
4 min readMar 16


Terry H. Schwadron

March 16, 2023

Inevitably, Joe Biden’s decision this week to approve a huge oil drilling project in Alaskan waters has drawn criticism that the move was based more on political realities than the best environmental choice.

Approval for the disputed $8 billion plan to extract 600 million barrels of oil from pristine federal land in Alaska ran afoul of Biden’s own past campaign promises and his general climate policies. It also came amid a pressure campaign from Alaska’s Republican lawmakers, energy shortages arising from the war in Ukraine, and ever-vocal voter anger about the price of gas at the pump.

Angriest this time were progressive Democrats who see traces of “betrayal” of climate-fighting principles even in the face of fuel supply issues.

For Biden himself, the move, which still includes some limitations on the ConocoPhillips Willow project, the decision came with a presidential shrug that transitions take time, that we still need oil fuels, and that climate policies cannot kick in instantaneously.

Still, if we pull back the camera just a bit, we can see a whole variety of Biden decisions getting set by the push-pull of an election reelection campaign, by economic supply line realities and by an aggressively conservative federal court system that is going out of its way to use legal challenges to snip and snipe at presidential policymaking power.

In broad strokes, the same factors at work in this oil-drilling decision also help to explain why Biden is adopting more Donald Trump-era policies on immigration or adjusting health policies to further to accommodate to vocal and organized religious fervor or keeping legislative proposals on gun controls to a minimum or adopting the budget that he wants.

With a Republican House prepared to squash more liberal proposals, we’re watching policy-making Biden move more center-right even as he continues to talk up an agenda that leans center-left. Of course, Republicans continue to criticize anything Biden does as “socialist,” whether it involves student loans, bank regulation or immigration policies.

The Drilling Decision
The New York Times noted that reported that while making the environmental decision, Biden was “acutely aware” of his campaign promise regarding climate change and the prospect of criticism from activists and young voters, who called the project a “carbon bomb.” Journalists are reporting that the administration figures working on the policy felt a need to reach out to voters who care about the gasoline price spikes.

Indeed, news coverage of the drilling decision noted that the burning of oil from Willow might set back climate gains being arranged elsewhere. The estimates are that the burning of oil from this project could spew 280 million metric tons of carbon in the air or 9.2 million metric tons of pollution a year, the equivalent of adding nearly two million cars to the road.

So, we have international climate agencies warning against approving these kinds of projects for environmental reasons clashing with the real-politick demands of American voters who want cheaper gas and heating fuel oil — all at a time in which global tensions are sapping energy supplies that govern market prices for fuel.

Specific politics aside, it seems in the end that the most pressing reason to approve the project were legal considerations about drilling leases that ConocoPhillips has held for 20 years. Refusing the permission to drill would have resulted in an enormous lawsuit before courts that increasingly have been seeking ways to trim presidential power.

The best guess is that legal pressures for leases that are akin to contract promises helped to limit Biden’s flexibility in the decision.

Administration officials did limit the size of the project to three sites rather than five, to avoid areas in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska area, and to protect coastal wetlands. There also are efforts underway to designate other Alaskan waters off-limits to drilling.

We may yet see opposing legal challenges from environmental groups who argue that a president can abrogate leasing rights if their impact is seen as harmful.

The Politics

Given that 18 months off, we’re already in the election-starting season, the pundits are falling over themselves talking about Biden sidling more generally from a more progressive agenda to a more centrist set of policies. Even when he does not, they say, Biden is talking about more popular topics like protecting Social Security and cutting drug prices than advancing contentious policies like climate.

Republicans, meanwhile, are following one another right over the cultural cliff to out-Right one another, each in turn blasting the Left for leading us down a path of sinful inadequacy in all things political, military, diplomatic or cultural. They are finding “woke” distractions in all fields, as if that explains, say, bad decisions by some banking officials.

Maybe these political shifts are natural to ensure primary election survival, particularly in a time in which the House has set itself as an enemy camp rather than even a rigorous policy sparring partner.

Indeed, conservative voices other than Republican lawmakers from Alaska were conspicuously silent about Biden’s decision to support more oil drilling — something you’d think they would salute.

But as with immigration policies that have been reissued effectively extending Trump-era policies, Republicans want to bang away at never doing enough to create “energy independence,” even if it is marketplace pricing in wartime that is setting gas pump rates.

Our times are calling for more solutions to problems, not fewer, with more understanding that is communicated by mindless slogans in the name of politics. This drilling decision should be understood mostly by the handcuffs — legal, political, and economic — that we are putting on the very officials whom we ask to devise ways to get us through the daily morass.