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Big Oil and the Biden Administration’s Strange New Relationship Status

The Biden Administration’s decision Monday to approve the Willow project, a multi-billion dollar oil drilling development in the Alaskan wilderness spearheaded by ConocoPhillips, may come as a shock to those who have grown accustomed to Biden’s harsh criticism of the oil and gas industry. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. In the past two years, unforeseen circumstances, including energy prices and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, have nudged the administration to seek to work with oil companies.

Indeed, the Willow project is just the latest development in the Biden Administration’s complicated, constantly evolving relations with the industry.

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The dynamic was on full display last week in Houston at the world’s most influential oil and gas conference, CERAWeek by S&P Global. Biden entered office promising to phase out oil and gas and has accused the industry of “war profiteering” as companies have earned record profits amid high energy prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nonetheless, top administration officials flew in from Washington to Houston to make the case for the oil and gas industry to embrace the transition from fossil fuels to green energy. “We need to not be polarized here,” John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, told a room packed with energy executives. “We need to collaborate, we need to bring people together.”

The reasons for the detente are easy to understand—on both sides. High energy prices have threatened the administration’s economic goals, pressuring Biden. And the industry has reason to make nice: the Inflation Reduction Act contains provisions that oil companies are well suited to help implement, and profit by.

So while the administration and the industry may not be friends, circumstances have unfolded such that they aren’t quite enemies, either. How they navigate the complicated relationship will shape much about how the fight against climate change unfolds in the coming years.

To understand how relations between Biden and the oil and gas industry have evolved, it’s helpful to look back in time a few years.

On the campaign trail, Biden came out swinging against the industry. He promised to end subsidies for fossil fuels and to halt new drilling on federal land. Within days of taking office, he canceled the permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, signaling that his administration would resist the oil and gas industry’s priorities.

At the time, the risks appeared minimal. Oil and gas seemed to be an industry in decline. The stock price of big energy companies had dropped to their lowest level in more than a decade. Oil prices were low, and so were the prices consumers paid at the pump. But then oil prices started to rise—first because of COVID re-openings and, later, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As energy prices skyrocketed across the globe, administration officials found themselves asking oil companies to ramp up drilling. The reception was chilly as oil companies resisted the high costs of drilling more when they were already making solid profits.

Then came the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the biggest piece of climate legislation ever passed in the U.S. On the surface, it might seem like big climate legislation would rankle the industry. Indeed, the law funds technologies that compete with oil and gas. But, thanks in large part to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s sway over the final text, the IRA is what energy experts describe as “technology neutral.” It funds wind and solar, yes, but other provisions actually invite the oil and gas industry to play a critical role in the energy transition. The IRA provides tax incentives for companies that capture carbon dioxide. It subsidizes hydrogen production. And it supports the production of biofuels. Oil and gas companies have been working on those technologies for years, though much of it has lingered on the back burner while profit from the core business soars. The promise of billions in federal incentives changes that calculation.

“You have the skill-sets and knowledge to build some critical technologies at scale,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told the crowd at CERAWeek. “You now have 10 years of IRA carrots you can take to bank.”

The oil and gas industry by and large opposed the law when it was up for consideration in Congress, largely citing tax provisions that target oil and gas companies and corporations more broadly. But, now that the IRA is law, the industry is seeing the upside, too. “We believe there’s opportunities within that legislation for our industry to continue to drive down emissions,” says Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics & regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s most influential trade group.

To be sure, even after the Willow approval, many areas of conflict remain. Just last week, Biden proposed axing fossil fuel subsidies as part of his budget proposal. (In the current political environment, presidential budget proposals are dead on arrival in Congress). And the industry is lobbying on a range of rules and regulations, not to mention the details of the IRA is implemented.

Still, the reception to the administration’s full court press at CERAWeek was surprisingly warm. Gigantic conference rooms with top Biden officials were left standing room only, and the hallways were crowded with attendees watching their talks on screens. Officials received generous—if not zealous—applause.

Jigar Shah, who is overseeing hundreds of billions of dollars in loans for clean energy projects as the head of the Department of Energy’s loan office, told attendees that he noticed newfound enthusiasm. “People have been very open to asking me tough questions, which I feel is good,” he said. “You know, they could just ignore me.”

All of this leaves the Biden Administration and the climate movement at large in somewhat of a strange place. The most significant climate law ever enacted relies, at least in part, on incumbent energy players embracing new energy technologies after decades of seeking to slow walk the energy transition. And those players now have concrete financial incentives to decarbonize that never existed before.

At CERAWeek, I asked John Podesta, the Biden advisor overseeing implementation of the IRA, about the changing relationship between the administration and the industry. “If they want to play clean,” he said. “We welcome them to the party.”

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