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gassing it up

The Lose-Lose Promise of Pledging Lower Gas Prices

Weirdly, the White House doesn’t seem to see much of a contradiction in continuing to boost domestic oil and gas production while championing climate change.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A gas station in San Rafael, California, on September 13

Over the weekend, tens of thousands of people rallied in New York City demanding an end to fossil fuels. On Monday, hundreds blockaded the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, calling on the Fed to crack down on Wall Street bank financing of coal, oil, and gas projects. The protests came as world leaders flocked to the U.N. General Assembly, where Biden will speak on Tuesday, and a coinciding U.N. Climate Action Summit on Wednesday, where he will not

Despite its continued pledge to climate action, in recent weeks the administration has been preoccupied by another matter: getting prices down at the pump. As oil prices crept toward $100 a gallon, the White House met with drillers last week to try to make sure they keep on drilling. “American producers are more productive than they’ve ever been,” Council of Economic Advisors chair Jared Bernstein told reporters, parrying questions as to whether administration policy is helping make fuel more expensive. 

Under fire from Republican lawmakers last week over similar complaints, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm boasted about the U.S. achieving record levels of oil and gas production this year; those gains are expected to continue through 2024. “There is no blocking of production in the United States,” she said. In a speech on Bidenomics last week, the president pledged to bring gas prices down too, just as he’s done with other prices.  

In a confusing position that’s becoming a hallmark of this administration, the White House doesn’t seem to see much of a contradiction in continuing to boost domestic oil and gas production while championing climate change as a core concern. As much as the administration’s wonks have been willing to part with some conventional wisdom about how much the government should intervene in the economy, the White House has maintained Democrats’ long-held commitment to an “all of the above” energy strategy—the idea that juicing clean energy and fossil fuels alike is perfectly compatible with an ambitious climate agenda.

That stance is getting harder to maintain. Biden has repeatedly called climate change an existential threat to humanity, recently going so far as to suggest that exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) would be “even more frightening” than nuclear war. A U.N. report issued earlier this month, assessing progress since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, warned that the world is very, very close to crossing that 1.5 degree threshold. To get back on track, the report’s authors recommend “phasing out all unabated fossil fuels,” i.e., those whose emissions cannot be eliminated through carbon capture technologies, which are still unable to do that at any meaningful scale. The U.S., meanwhile, is responsible for more than a third of planned global fossil fuel expansion through 2050. It’s one of five wealthy countries—the others are Norway, Australia, Canada, and the U.K.—responsible for half of planned fossil fuel expansion over the same time period. 

Pledging to bring gas prices down by any means necessary is a lose-lose prospect for both the planet and the Biden administration. For one, it’s out of Biden’s hands. Production decisions in the U.S. are made entirely by private companies; the White House can give them cheap land and tax breaks and ask CEOs nicely to help bring down prices by refining and drilling more. But it can’t make them do it. Even if it could, other oil-producing countries have more reliable mechanisms for shifting markets in one direction or the other. One major reason why prices have been higher recently is because the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, a global alliance of countries that attempts to coordinate oil production and prices, decided to cut supply this summer. That’s largely seen as an attempt by OPEC members to look out for their own domestic priorities, given how heavily oil revenues backstop public budgets in those countries. 

There’s no world, either, in which Republicans give Biden credit if prices do come down. By almost any metric, the Biden administration has been an extraordinarily good one for oil and gas companies, which enjoyed record profits last year. Though the administration has rolled back some Trump-era expansions of oil and gas drilling—it recently announced it would cancel leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—it’s offered major handouts to the fossil fuel industry, including the prospect of long-term price stability as it refills the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. None of that has stopped the GOP from persecuting the White House and Biden over some alleged war on cars and American energy producers. 

There are obvious reasons why presidents harp on wanting to get gas prices down, especially with a general election coming up; it’s one of the core metrics voters use to judge how the economy is doing. The White House, though, isn’t in a position to change gas prices one way or the other. It certainly won’t reap many political rewards if they slide. 

Since the 1970s, politicians on both sides of the aisle have chased an impossible goal called “energy independence.” Generally, that means boosting domestic fossil fuel production; for Democrats, it means subsidizing an industry that is both destroying the planet and hates them no matter what. Biden may not actually have much to lose by adopting a more confrontational definition of energy independence, more in line with what climate experts and protesters have been calling for: Make clear that the U.S. intends to ditch fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and stop ceding control of our energy system to a handful of unaccountable corporations at home and abroad.