WASHINGTON—Biden administration lawyers are defending oil and mining projects approved under the Trump administration, benefiting ConocoPhillips, Rio Tinto PLC, BHP Group Ltd. and others at the expense of environmental and tribal groups challenging the projects.
In a series of court arguments this spring, the administration has supported the Willow oil project in Alaska, the Resolution Copper Mining project in Arizona and the Dakota Access Pipeline, all of which are on federal land or need federal approval for major water crossings.
The legal filings have helped improve some of President Biden’s shakier relationships with lawmakers from Western states, specifically moderate Democrats and some Republicans whose support Mr. Biden needs to get his nominees and initiatives through Congress.
“I sense there’s a lot more pragmatism there now,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R., Mont.), who has criticized the Biden administration’s pause on federal oil and gas leasing and its decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline project.
Mr. Daines applauded the administration’s recent federal court filing to defend ConocoPhillips’s Willow project against challenges from environmental groups. And he praised several recent nominations from Mr. Biden to fill out the leadership ranks at the Interior Department, including the former energy industry lawyer Tommy Beaudreau as deputy secretary
“They have demonstrated an openness and willingness to have an open dialogue on what’s important to the West,” Mr. Daines said.
The actions haven’t gone over as well with Mr. Biden’s typical allies among environmentalists and tribes.
During his campaign, Mr. Biden promised to help spur a move away from fossil fuels, especially oil.
“I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” Mr. Biden said during the final presidential debate. “The oil industry pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
He also said he would enhance environmental protections for and consultations with poor and minority communities, including Native American tribes. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the way in which environmental burdens and benefits have been and will continue to be distributed unevenly along racial and socioeconomic lines,” reads “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice.”
Some of the administration’s recent decisions not only advance oil projects, but come in direct opposition to tribes that have been fighting them.
“To the present moment, those are still empty words from the Biden administration, empty words,” said Michael Nixon, a lawyer representing the Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit fighting the Resolution mine.
Administration officials say the president remains committed to an agenda aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and arresting climate change. But they note Mr. Biden had also promised his administration would honor the government’s legal obligations toward oil, gas and other industries—and never called for halting oil and mineral production under federal oversight.
Previously granted leases are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis, administration officials say. There are no expectations inside the administration or among lobbyists or members of Congress the administration is pulling back from a larger goal of transitioning the country to cleaner fuels to address climate change.