The left are urging a green energy revolution. The right are sounding a battle cry of “Drill, baby, drill”. And American voters, tired of political excuses, are feeling angry.
Rising gas prices pose a fresh election year headache for Joe Biden. Republicans accuse him of pushing “a radical anti-US energy agenda”. Democrats put the blame on greedy oil companies and the assault on Ukraine by the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
While some argue that crisis offers opportunity, consumers are feeling the pinch in the latest knotty problem for a US president who, after 14 months in office, seemingly cannot catch a break.
“Biden has a cursed presidency,” observed Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “He’s gotten nailed by the continuation of Covid, by inflation being out of control, by a lunatic leader in Russia and now soaring energy prices that are hitting voters in the pocketbook. They want to be able to get gas for their cars and not spend a hundred bucks.”
Prices at the pump, which hit a record high of $4.43 a gallon on average last weekend, were rising long before Russia invaded Ukraine as demand recovered from coronavirus lockdowns. But in announcing a ban on US imports of Russian oil, Biden sought to reframe it as “Putin’s price hike”.
Republicans, however, saw a political cudgel with which to beat him. They argue that Biden campaigned on a promise to “wage war” on domestic energy production, signed an executive order to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and suspended or halted oil and gas leases on federal lands.
A sign displays $4.49 a gallon at an Exxon gas station in Washington DC on 13 March. Photograph: Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, tweeted: “Nobody buys Democrats’ efforts to blame 14 months of failed policies on three weeks of crisis in Europe. Inflation and gas prices were skyrocketing and hurting families long before late last month. The White House needs to stop trying to deny their mistakes and start fixing them.”
Republicans have also condemned the White House for reportedly considering deals with autocratic regimes for a back-up oil supply, undermining Biden’s moral authority at a critical moment on the world stage. Former president Donald Trump told supporters at a rally in South Carolina: “Now Biden is crawling around the globe on his knees begging and pleading for mercy from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela.”
Their solution? Vastly increase domestic oil and gas production to end reliance on foreign countries. Introducing legislation to that end, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri said: “To be strong and free as a nation, we must be energy independent. My bill will reverse Joe Biden’s disastrous energy surrender that has allowed Russian energy dominance and instead open up American production full-throttle.”
But critics say that, while “energy independence” appears a resonant campaign slogan, it is based on false premise. The price of oil is set on the global market, not by domestic producers. The US exported more petroleum than it imported in 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration, while also increasing overall crude oil production.
Nikos Tsafos, an energy and geopolitics expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies thinktank in Washington, said: “We are energy independent by the definition that people use. We are a net exporter of energy and it doesn’t do anything to protect us, which is not a surprise to anyone who has ever thought about energy markets.”
There is a different potential culprit. Consumer gas prices usually move in tandem with oil prices but this week, when oil prices fell below $100 a barrel as China’s Covid-19 outbreak threatened demand, there was little relief for at the pump. Democrats accuse giant oil corporations, already raking in billions of dollars, of profiteering.
Biden wrote in a tweet: “Oil prices are decreasing, gas prices should too. Last time oil was $96 a barrel, gas was $3.62 a gallon. Now it’s $4.31. Oil and gas companies shouldn’t pad their profits at the expense of hardworking Americans.”
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, and Frank Pallone, chair of the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee, requested that oil company chief executives testify before Congress on 6 April. Schumer said on the Senate floor: “The bewildering incongruity between falling oil prices and rising gas prices smacks of price gouging.”
In an interview with the Guardian, Ed Markey, a Democratic senator for Massachusetts, pointed out that oil companies already have all the land they need to heed Republicans’ plea to “drill, baby, drill” – but will not do it because it is contrary to their business model.
“Chevron, Exxon, BP, Shell – they made a combined $75bn in net profits last year and, despite all their crocodile tears right now about this crisis, they’ve already announced that they’re going to return $38bn to their shareholders instead of taking the $38bn and beginning to drill on the 12,000 leases that they have on federal land in the United States for oil and gas,” Markey said.
“The reason they’re not going to do it is that they are hypocrites, they are liars. They don’t want to drill because if we produce more oil, that would lower prices for consumers. So it’s all one big lie.”
Markey, who helped devise the Green New Deal platform to wean America off fossil fuels at home or abroad, welcomed Biden’s move to tap into the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which contains 600m barrels. But he added: “In the long term, we need a technology revolution. If we do it, we’re going to be looking at all these companies and countries in a rear-view mirror historically.
We need to go to ‘plug in, baby, plug in’
“We need to go to ‘plug in, baby, plug in’. We need wind, solar, battery storage technologies, all-electric vehicles, all the other innovation technologies that reduce greenhouse gases, but also back out the need for oil and gas in our economy, the European economy, the economy of Japan and all of our allies.”
Does Biden, juggling so many crises, still get that?
Markey replied: “I was part of a meeting with the president last Wednesday night and he once again made a commitment to his effort to achieve that energy technology revolution in our country.”
There is also grassroots pressure on Biden. More than 200 environmental and indigenous organizations signed a letter demanding that he use the Defense Production Act, normally deployed by presidents in wartime to force companies to make weapons, to compel businesses to produce solar panels, wind turbines and other clean energy sources.
John Paul Mejia, national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a youth movement to stop climate change, said: “The playbook of fossil fuel executives is clearer now than ever. They have used the crisis of war to surge prices at the expense of working people and the takeaway from this is that it is incredibly dangerous and anti-democratic to have an economy dependent on fossil fuels.
“We need Biden to use the Defence Production Act to take decisive measures on the urgency, scope and scale of this crisis and transition to clean, renewable, reliable energy.”
Biden has given little hint of such a move as he relies on Congress to take action. But his signature Build Back Better plan, which would have poured about $550bn into the clean energy and climate business, appears to be going nowhere fast.
One of the chief obstacles is the Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who recently told an energy conference that he was “very reluctant” to see the development of electric vehicles. A key vote in the evenly divided chamber, Manchin has taken more money in political donations from fossil fuel interests than any other senator.
Joe Manchin at a news conference about a bill to ban Russian energy imports on 3 March. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Mejia added: “One of the things to view that’s specific to the United States right now is that the crook executives in the fossil fuel industry have a strong hold over American politics in the sense that they have incredibly powerful politicians bought out like Joe Manchin.
“At this moment what we’re seeing, especially ahead of elections too, are the so-called conservative Democrats suddenly overnight flipping and pretending to be working-class champions as they morph themselves into caring about what working people are feeling at the gas pump right now. But they’re really just fulfilling their allegiances to their big oil donors.”
Opinion polls suggest Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine has broad public approval but, with hints of a fresh coronavirus wave, his list of problems never seems to shorten. Whatever the causes of inflation, history suggests that voters may punish him at the ballot box.
The president’s legislative ambitions for the climate crisis and other priorities are about to collide with midterm elections in which all signs point to Republicans winning the House and possibly the Senate. Biden could find himself spending the second half of his presidency vetoing laws rather than signing them.
Jamal Raad, co-founder and executive director of the campaign group Evergreen Action, said: “If there was ever a moment of need for moving to a 100% clean energy economy was more clear that now, I don’t know when would be with a fossil fueled enabled leader attacking another country and throwing the whole fossil fuel global market into chaos. I do believe this is a make-or-break moment.”