The Biden administration faces another challenge to its agenda, this time from within its own faction. After several months of extremely high gas prices and the resulting backlash, President Biden fought feverishly to bring prices down – going so far as to release nearly a million barrels of oil a day to drive down gas prices — but with a focus on oil prices, Biden now faces serious questions about his ability to enact a strong climate plan in a country that relies heavily on oil and gas for transportation.
Why are gas prices so high?
The issue of gasoline prices is a source of complex, bitter and partisan discourse. Republicans have consistently blamed President Biden for rising gas prices, with some pointing to the decision to shut down the Keystone pipeline as a contributing factor. Senate Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy previously cited the Keystone Pipeline as an example in a speech, saying, “…The President canceled the Keystone Pipeline, then he stopped new oil and gas leases on the lands and federal waters.
Others, however, pointed to a wide variety of factors influencing gas prices. Everything about Russia, inflation and world oil prices was discussed. Jermaine Windham of the ISU Observer looked at these same factors in an excellent article earlier this month. That said, much of the conversation surrounding gas prices is hyper-focused on individual presidents and not the larger context in which their policies exist.
Rarely, if ever, are the limits of presidential agency in influencing oil prices in an increasingly global and interconnected world considered. An example of this is the lackluster attention given to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, more commonly known as OPEC. OPEC, a collection of 13 oil-producing nations, is an integral part of the global oil supply chain. Its share of the world’s crude oil supply is around 37%, making this collection of nations one of the largest producers in the world.
As the pandemic began to take hold, people were isolated at home and crude oil prices fell dramatically, forcing OPEC and other oil producers to cut production to avoid losing their profit margins. In April 2020, gasoline prices fell to levels not seen since 2016 before surging back in August of the same year.
As a result, supply has not kept up with demand, which Biden has tried to respond to by increasing the amount of oil in US markets. Even though the United States is the country that produces the most oil, it is still subject to world oil prices.
How does this affect the environment?
With rising oil prices around the world, Biden faces immense pressure to increase America’s ability to produce oil at lower prices, especially as he approaches the middlemen. That said, Biden also risks undermining his promises to maintain a stronger climate agenda.
With the Build Back Better Act failing to pass the Senate, Biden’s climate plan is already on thin ice. However, Biden has shown some willingness to enforce and restore protections for the environment. In April this year, he reversed former President Trump’s decision to remove requirements that government agencies consider environmental impacts when reviewing infrastructure.
The push to lower gas prices and increase supply has led Biden to allow oil companies to restore onshore and gas leases on federal lands, albeit at higher fees. This was prompted somewhat by the Department of the Interior recommending that the federal government increase oil and gas charges to provide a better return to the taxpayer.
Biden’s policies will inevitably cause more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere by releasing oil from their reserves, restoring gas and oil leases, and working to allow more oil to be used. Normally, E15 gasoline, which is a gas containing 15% ethanol, is banned during the summer to avoid harming the country’s air quality. Earlier this month, Biden announced the ban would be lifted for next summer, citing gas prices as the justification. In a speech explaining his speech, Biden said:
“E15 is about 10 cents a gallon cheaper than E10. Some gas stations offer an even bigger discount than that… But many gas stations that sell it… are required to stop selling it in the summer, but with this waiver, on June 1, you’re not going to show up and see a bag on the pump with the cheapest gas. You’re going to be able to keep filling up with E15, and that’s going to solve quite a problem.
Although he called climate change an existential threat last year, the reality of gas prices and the combined pressure of fossil fuel interests in the upcoming election are apparently guiding Biden to balance two agendas to please both.
In other words, Biden is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He cannot appeal to the need for strong climate change policies and simultaneously respond to rising oil prices by letting environmental activists and oil streams know about it. As long as Biden responds to the current oil crises without the infrastructure to root America out of gas, his administration will continue to struggle against these two factions of energy policy.