President Joe Biden has pledged to wean the US off of fossil fuels, and never has that call been more urgent than now, with United Nations-backed scientists warning of a point of no return.
And yet, the Biden administration Wednesday called on Saudi Arabia and its allies to unleash more crude onto global markets, stressing the importance of “affordable energy.” That doesn’t mean the US president has suddenly turned his back on clean energy, but he’s facing the political reality that scores of voters won’t put up with a steady rise in the cost of fuels.
The jarring contradiction highlights the challenges that politicians around the world face in pushing for a transition away from oil, while also seeking to keep a lid on prices at the pump. It also underscores how political barriers could force the administration to scale back some of its green ambitions, including new limits on oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico and on federal land that Biden promised on the campaign trail.
And as the administration tries to navigate the political hurdles of fighting climate change without burdening voters, it’s stoking strong criticism after getting tough on fracking and oil pipelines at home.
“The White House doubles down on favoring OPEC production while giving the middle finger to American energy jobs, American energy consumers, climate advantaged American production,” said Scott Angelle, a Republican former lieutenant governor of Louisiana and secretary of natural resources.
Sonya Savage, the energy minister of Alberta, Canada’s oil heartland, was even more blunt. She said pleading with OPEC after killing the Keystone XL pipeline that would have shipped oil sands crude to US refineries “smacks of hypocrisy.”
The administration’s appeal to OPEC came just two days after Monday’s rallying cries to shift away from fossil fuels amid “unequivocal” warnings from the world’s top climate scientists to eliminate carbon emissions as quickly as possible. John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy on climate, urged “aggressive climate action.”
A White House official stressed that the Biden administration remains firmly committed to achieving a net-zero economy by 2050 and decarbonizing the power sector by 2035. At the same time, Biden is seeking to ensure Americans have access to affordable energy, recognizing that higher gasoline costs, if left unchecked, risk harming the economic recovery.
Oil is up more than 40% this year, and average gasoline prices at the pump have been above $3 a gallon since May. US consumer prices increased 0.5% last month from June and 5.4% from a year ago, according to Labor Department data released Wednesday.
After more than a decade of low inflation, rising prices have steadily taken hold across almost all parts of the US economy, from housing to consumer goods, with supply-chain shortages leaving some industries almost at breaking point. Higher oil prices inevitably make everything worse.
“President Biden has made clear that he wants Americans to have access to affordable and reliable energy, including at the pump,” the White House said in a statement. OPEC’s current plan to increase production slowly “is simply not enough.”
After massive growth since 2010, production from America’s shale fields and offshore oil platforms plunged during 2020, removing more than an entire US Gulf of Mexico’s worth of output. It has since plateaued at around 11.3 million barrels as frackers focus on banking profits from higher oil prices, rather than investing in expanding output. That has given OPEC more pricing power in the global oil market.
While in no way as severe, runaway US consumer prices and a presidential appeal to the Middle East to manage oil prices recalls the inflationary crises of the 1970s.
“The Biden administration is under enormous political pressure due to inflation, with galloping gasoline the most publicly visible and vexing,” said Bob McNally, president of consultants Rapidan Energy Group and a former White House official.
As candidate, Joe Biden called for phasing out the nation’s oil industry, saying the environmental costs were too great not to transition to renewable energy.
“The oil industry pollutes significantly,” Biden said during an October 2020 political debate with his rival Donald Trump. “It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
Trump soon seized on the remarks to warn swing-state voters in energy producing states like Pennsylvania that a Biden presidency would cost jobs, and Biden sought to downplay his on-stage comment.
“We’re not going to get rid of fossil fuels for a long time,” he told reporters as he prepared to depart Nashville.
Encouraging other countries to withhold oil supply to push up pump prices isn’t good climate policy and it would hurt consumers and the economy, said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former energy and climate adviser in the Obama administration.
“I don’t see anything inconsistent in expressing concern over the pace at which OPEC+ is bringing oil back to the market and pursuing strong climate policy for the long-term,” Bordoff said in an email.
Less than a year into his first term, Biden is making sure that his administration doesn’t alienate voters in the squeezed American middle class, despite his rhetoric on climate change, according to Kevin Book, managing director of research firm ClearView Energy Partners.
“This seems intended more for the American driver than the overseas producer, and it probably has more to do with November of 2022 than August of 2021,” he said.
“Congressional margins are tight. The Biden agenda won’t get very far if a GOP-controlled Congress can shut the government down.”