Biden's broken promise
Alaskan oil and gas drilling project – albeit scaled back – a go
THE NEWS: The Biden administration approved a scaled-back version of ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil and gas drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, drawing condemnation – and a likely lawsuit – from environmentalists, climate hawks, and residents and leaders of Nuiqsut, the Inupiaq community nearest to the proposed drilling site. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel pushers’ celebration was sullied by Biden’s announcement he would limit or ban drilling on some 16 million acres in the Arctic Ocean and elsewhere on the petroleum reserve.
THE CONTEXT: Though not unexpected, the news of the approval sent shock waves throughout the environmental community. After all, Biden promised during his campaign to halt all drilling on federal lands. He’s had a tough time living up to the pledge during the past two years, sometimes due to factors out of his control. But green-lighting a 200-well development – along with oodles of associated infrastructure and roads – on federal land blatantly breaks the promise, even though the approved version is 40% smaller than what ConocoPhillips aimed for, and the company will relinquish 68,000 acres of leases in the project area as a condition of approval.
Biden did not make the decision to break his promise and risk alienating his progressive base lightly. Nor, in my opinion, did he do it simply to better his chances of reelection. I think he did it because he was under intense pressure from Alaska state lawmakers, Native Alaska leaders and the state’s entire congressional delegation to sign off on the drilling. That included Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the few remaining pragmatic leaders in the GOP and someone Biden doesn’t want to alienate. And, more importantly, Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, the first Alaska Native woman elected to Congress, who fervently supported the Willow project even as she acknowledged its environmental impacts.
Peltola argued that allowing the project to go forward was the best way to ease the energy transition’s impacts on Alaska’s most vulnerable communities. Not only would it generate huge amounts of tax revenue for the fossil fuel-dependent state, she said, but it would also form a “bridge to fill the gap” as the state and nation move away from fossil fuels.
While Peltola’s argument was convincing, obviously, it also reveals the pitfalls of becoming too reliant on fossil fuel extraction and the jobs and revenues it can provide. This dependency forces the communities most affected by extractive industries and climate change to supplicate themselves to the very industries that harm them most in order to survive.
Sen. John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican, has introduced a bill that would ban uranium imports from Russia or Russian-owned entities. The bill has support from a broad slate of Western Republican lawmakers as well as from Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico. On its face, the legislation is aimed at defunding Putin’s war machine. But an intended side effect is that it could revive the dying domestic uranium industry.
Chronically low uranium prices caused by an abundance of global supply coupled with flagging demand have reduced the U.S. uranium mining industry to a shadow of its former, heavily subsidized self. U.S. mines produced nearly 44 million pounds of uranium concentrate in 1980; in 2021, they kicked out just 21,000 pounds. More than 95% of the uranium that fuels U.S. reactors is now imported.
While just 14% of those uranium imports come from Russia, another 35% comes from Kazakhstan, where many of the mines are operated by Russia’s Rosatom or its subsidiaries. That means Barrasso’s bill could potentially cut off up to nearly half of the uranium imports into the U.S. That would skew the supply-demand balance, cause prices to shoot up and give an economic incentive to operators to restart mothballed uranium mines in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
It’s not clear, however, the bill will pass. The extremist wing of the Republican Party has a fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin, so they may not support a bill aimed at diminishing the authoritarian’s power. And progressive Democrats might be wary of propping up the domestic uranium industry, given its legacy of harming the land, water and people of the West.
Energy Fuels, which operates the White Mesa uranium mill in southeastern Utah and owns several mines in the West, has long favored uranium import restrictions. Apparently this sentiment doesn’t extend to uranium-bearing radioactive waste.
State inspection reports reveal that the White Mesa mill last year received 660 metric tons of radioactive waste from a facility in, get this, Estonia. Yep, Estonian rare earth elements processor Silmet shipped about 2,000 55-gallon drums of “alternate feed material” over ocean and land to the mill outside Blanding so that Energy Fuels could reprocess it and store the waste on site. Silmet pays Energy Fuels to essentially serve as its de facto waste dump.
Currently Energy Fuels relies on the alternate feeds branch for nearly all of its uranium production and a good chunk of its income, according to SEC filings. Last year, the company received $2.6 million, or about 21% of its total revenues, from the Estonian firm Silmet. That was for both alternate feed payments from and sales of rare earth carbonates to Silmet.
The Land Desk is a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson, author of “River of Lost Souls,” “Behind the Slickrock Curtain” and “Sagebrush Empire.” To subscribe, go to: www.landdesk.org ?