Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Biden’s Alaska Oil drilling plan: 12x Irish emissions at the stroke of a pen

In 2021, according to, Ireland produced 34.8million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.

It is universally agreed in the political, media, and academic class that this figure is too high, and requires “urgent action” – including the dramatic reduction of the national herd, massive new charges for car parking, progressively higher taxes on carbon, and so on.

I mention this because yesterday, President Joe Biden approved a new oil well in Alaska. With a single stroke of a pen, according to CNN, the US administration opened a project that will add 278million metric tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere over the next 30 years: 12 times what Ireland produces in a single year:

The Biden administration approved a major and controversial oil drilling plan in Alaska, known as Willow, just one day after unveiling protections for more than 16 million acres of land and water in the region.

The $8 billion plan, led by Alaska’s largest crude oil producer, would produce about 600 million barrels of oil over 30 years and generate around 278 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Under the plan, ConocoPhillips will be allowed to develop three well pads within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a 23 million-acre area that is the largest expanse of public land in the U.S.

Climate change is, of course, a global problem. Ireland, as the above figures should make abundantly clear, cannot reduce carbon enough to make even a dent in the problem. In fact, if the whole island of Ireland went into deep freeze for the next decade, it would still not offset the emissions that Joe Biden signed into law yesterday – and he’s spending $8billion to do it.

It was announced yesterday, incidentally, that President Biden is to visit Ireland this summer, as is traditional for first-term US Presidents in the year before their re-election. Reagan came in 1985, Clinton in 1995, Bush in 2003, Obama in 2011, Trump in 2019. The fact that these visits all come in the year before the President is up for re-election is no coincidence: It is more about appealing to the sentimental Irish-American voter than it is out of a sincere love of the old sod. But since these visits are entirely political, one might think that our Government might have something to say about Biden undoing a few decades of harsh Irish climate efforts at the stroke of a pen.

Reader: They will not.

It should, at this stage, be abundantly clear that Irish climate policy is not about saving the world, since saving the world is not a thing that can be delivered by Irish policy. Our politicians are not stupid enough to believe that. The problem, basically, is that many Irish voters apparently are stupid enough to believe it. Or perhaps more generously: They care about the climate and recognise that Ireland is the only country that they can influence, so they do what they can here and simply hope for the best elsewhere.

The problem is that doing what we can here and hoping for the best elsewhere is not a sensible strategy if the rest of the world is not doing what it needs to: In the end, Ireland will end up with a relatively smaller, higher cost economy, with fewer resources and less flexibility to adapt if and when the global climate crisis does arrive. We will not be spared the avalanche of hurricanes and climate refugees and droughts and pestilences when they arrive, simply because we put solar panels on UCD while the Americans opened oil wells.

In that context, we are not averting climate disaster: We are simply choosing to be poorer and less able to respond when the climate disaster arrives.

If it arrives.

Indeed, if the climate disaster arrives, then Ireland is actually in one of the best parts of the world to experience it: A slightly warmer climate here will enhance, not diminish, our ability to produce food. The weather, net-net, is likely to improve, not disimprove. That is at variance with many of our competitors, like Brazil, which may be more affected by drought.

Moving food production from Ireland to Brazil in the face of climate disaster is, then, objectively unwise.

All in all, Ireland’s climate approach compared to the US, China, and other large polluters is a little like being the holy Joe in the parish: We tend to believe that when the end times come, all our praying and fasting and piety will see to it that we are saved, while our neighbours perish. But that’s an act of religious faith – preparing ourselves for a disaster that may never come, and relying on the idea that piety, rather than pragmatism, will get us through it.

Still, better than going to mass, I suppose.

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