Willow protesters dog Biden as he touts his environmental achievements

banner on grass outside a building with columns
Climate protesters unfurled a “stop Willow” banner at the Interior Department’s headquarters, where President Biden was speaking. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

While climate activists unfurled an anti-Willow-project banner in front of the Interior Department headquarters near the White House Tuesday, President Joe Biden was inside, bragging about his environmental and climate record.

“My first year in office we protected more lands and waters than any American president since John Kennedy,” he said, to cheers in the agency’s auditorium.

He announced new monuments in Nevada and Texas, as well as a new marine sanctuary southwest of Hawaii that covers an area larger than all of Alaska.

But outside the building, the protesters weren’t impressed. They haven’t let up on Biden since last week’s decision approving Willow, ConocoPhillips’s plan to drill 200 oil wells in Alaska’s western Arctic. 

They’ve launched a series of protests in Washington, D.C. that could undercut his message on climate change and alienate the young voters who supported his 2020 election.

Biden made action to reel in greenhouse gas emissions a central part of that campaign. His decision on Willow – the largest pending oil project on federal land – quickly galvanized opposition online, particularly among young people, who watched anti-Willow TikTok videos by the million. 

Art student Nadia Nazar was an organizer of Tuesday’s protest at the Interior Department. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

So far, the in-person protests haven’t been of that scale, but the sustained focus could threaten to tarnish Biden’s legacy on climate.

“Biden keep your promise – stop Willow,” some 20 activists chanted Tuesday. They beat plastic buckets with drumsticks. For a backbeat, they played a recording of Biden’s voice on a loop, making promises in 2020 they say he broke.

“No more subsidies to the fossil fuel industry,” Biden said during a presidential debate. “No more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill. Period.”

Baltimore art student Nadia Nazar is an organizer with a youth-led climate justice group called Zero Hour, part of a coalition she said organized the event at the Interior Department. She said they want Biden to feel the pressure when he makes future decisions on oil development, and to know that his re-election could be on the line.

“A lot of young people turned out and voted for him last election,” she said. “He made these promises to us. And the climate crisis is something that’s so important to not only us, but so many people here in the U.S.”

Protesters on Monday disrupted a presentation at a Washington think tank featuring White House climate advisor Ali Zaidi, and a group called Climate Defiance says it intends to blockade the White House Correspondents Dinner next month.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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