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Markey calls Biden's decision to back the Willow Project 'an environmental injustice'


The uppermost part of Alaska is called the North Slope. It contains a national petroleum reserve roughly the size of the state of Indiana. This week, the Biden administration approved a major new oil extraction project in that federal reserve, the ConocoPhillips Willow Project. The decision has divided Democrats. Supporters say it will provide jobs. Opponents say it makes it harder to slow climate change, including Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate and Nuclear Safety. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ED MARKEY: Great to be with you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: You have called this decision an environmental injustice. Do you think the thousands of jobs that supporters say it will create are not worth the trade-off? Or are you skeptical that this actually will provide that number of jobs?

MARKEY: Well, the question is, what is the long-term impact to our planet? What additional consequences are there to the additions to not only what damage we are doing to the planet, but what example it's sending to other countries in the world? So President Biden has been the most effective climate champion the Oval Office has ever seen. He signed into law the most ambitious climate and clean energy legislation in our history. And unfortunately, this decision sends the wrong message to international partners, to Alaska Natives and local communities to whom the project poses a health and safety threat.

SHAPIRO: But federal lawmakers who represent Alaska from both parties support this plan. Here's Democratic Congresswoman Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native in Congress, speaking with Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Media.

MARY PELTOLA: Yes, I agree there is a climate crisis, but the whole world can't tell Alaska to shutter its business until the world has come up with solutions.

SHAPIRO: Senator Markey, you represent the people of Massachusetts. Why do you think your views should outweigh those of Alaska's delegation?

MARKEY: Well, I hope my colleagues are also speaking to Alaska Natives who have raised the alarm on what this project will mean for the Inupiat communities who live in the region. Alaska Native communities are already seeing their very way of life threatened as they suffer from rising temperatures and other impacts of the climate crisis. And I've been talking to those Native American communities in Alaska as well, and their voices should be heard and considered.

SHAPIRO: Now, environmental groups have filed legal action to block drilling. And so where do you see this going? Do you expect it to be tied up in court for a long time?

MARKEY: Well, I'm glad to see that there are bold advocates in Alaska and across the country who are willing to do everything in their power to reverse this decision. Obviously, we're moving towards an all-electric vehicle future in our country and on the planet. And every new electric vehicle displaces a car which would be using oil. So from my perspective, we need to continue to fight this project as an innovation clean energy revolution rapidly unfolds because of the Inflation Reduction Act that Joe Biden led and signed into law.

SHAPIRO: You say we're moving toward an all-electric vehicle future, but we're not there yet. And the U.S. right now still depends on fossil fuels, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine made very clear. Is there a danger that if the U.S. stops new oil production before renewable alternatives have scaled up to meet the country's energy demands, there will be a gap?

MARKEY: No. Our goal in the United States is to have 50% of all new vehicles be electric by the year 2030.

SHAPIRO: But the question is whether electricity production, solar production, wind production, renewable production generally meets the demand for energy in the United States, even if the assembly lines are churning out the electric vehicles.

MARKEY: Well, in the amount of time it would take big oil to finally fulfill their long broken promise of making us energy independent, we could replace that demand for dirty oil with the demand for clean energy like wind and solar and all-electric vehicles and battery storage technologies. So my belief is that we are now going to see a vertical path for implementation of each of those new technologies. The private marketplace is responding dramatically. And from my perspective, big oil really doesn't care about consumers. They care about corporate profits. That's what they're focused on. And by the time, you know, we have finished this battle, we will have seen the big oil business plan destroyed, both here and around the world.

SHAPIRO: Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, thank you very much.

MARKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.