At a virtual hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources this week, Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota, the ranking Republican, displayed a visual of President Joe Biden pointing to a gas pump with the price set at $3.49 and the words, “I did that!” Climate policies pushed by Biden and Democrats, Stauber insisted, are driving up fuel prices.
“Life is simply more expensive for Americans under the Biden administration,” Stauber said.
Blaming Biden and his modest climate agenda for everything from post-lockdown inflation to high fuel prices is all the rage among Republicans these days, but in reality, the bulk of Biden’s climate proposals have not been enacted. Experts say current fuel prices are the result of multiple domestic and international factors, including the industry’s own moves to boost returns for shareholders by limiting oil exploration as pandemic restrictions fade and demand increases.
Pieces of Biden’s climate agenda will be funded by a new infrastructure package that passed Congress with bipartisan support, but popular plans (which Stauber opposed) to update the transportation and energy grids to be more energy efficient and to withstand climate-fueled disasters were not the focus of the Republican’s attack.
Instead, Stauber pointed to orders issued by Biden shortly after the presidential inauguration to block a key permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and to pause sales of public lands and waters for oil and gas drilling while the Interior Department reviewed leasing programs that government watchdogs have long criticized as dysfunctional.
The non-partisan fact-checkers at PolitiFact recently examined the Keystone XL talking point after a viral post linking high gas prices to “shutting pipe lines down” was flagged on Facebook as misinformation. The massive pipeline would have transported heavy, carbon-intensive oil from Canada’s Alberta Tar Sands and bisected much of the country, angering climate activists, tribal governments and farmers in its proposed path.
PolitiFact determined the post — which claimed that gas prices were lower in other oil-producing countries because their governments are not canceling pipelines like Keystone XL — to be false.
“The pipeline shutdown has absolutely nothing to do with gas prices,” Patrick De Haan, the head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, told PolitiFact. “Prices are higher because production has lagged behind, not because there isn’t enough pipeline capacity — there is.”
Biden has come under pressure to cancel permits for other pipelines, including the Line 3 pipeline in Stauber’s home state of Minnesota, which faced fierce resistance from Indigenous activists despite intense police repression. After the pipeline went into operation in October, water protectors from across the country converged on Washington, D.C., for a mass protest demanding Biden turn the nation away from fossil fuels.
Climate activists say new fossil fuel infrastructure is unnecessary and will keep the U.S. dependent on dirty energy into the future. The U.S. has already become the world leader in oil and gas production thanks to the fracking boom and plenty of infrastructure that already exists.
U.S. crude oil production dropped sharply in early 2020 as lockdowns restricted commerce and travel. It still remains far below pre-pandemic levels, according to federal data. Facing consumer anger as the economy reboots and gas prices rise, Biden has pressured the industry to lower prices and unlocked strategic federal oil reserves.
Experts say the oil industry is cutting costs and holding back on efforts to expand crude oil production in order to boost cash returns to shareholders, according to an analysis by Bloomberg News. The fracking boom that sent U.S. fossil fuel production soaring in recent years also led to a glut of fuel and plummeting prices, especially for natural gas, which threw drilling companies into bankruptcy and angered investors looking for a hefty return. Some producers went out of business during the pandemic, which could also be contributing to higher gas prices than consumers are used to.
That’s one reason why the fossil fuel industry has aggressively pushed to expand its industrial foothold across the country: The U.S. is producing plenty of oil and gas as fracking booms continue in Texas and beyond. Plus, new pipelines and other infrastructure are needed to transfer and export fossil fuels into international markets. Notably, Republicans aren’t saying much about exports to other countries as they complain about high prices at home.
Some experts say the Biden’s climate agenda and global efforts to reduce emissions could chill private investment in oil and gas, but investors make decisions based on a variety of factors, including the growth of renewable energy and the myriad economic risks posed by a changing climate. When the scientists warn that extreme weather, rising seas, widespread drought and rising temperatures will undermine already struggling energy grids and transform our way of life, some financial investors undoubtedly take notice.
The international market also plays a role in setting gas prices at home, because oil is traded globally at prices shaped by speculation and geopolitics as well as increased demand as travel and commerce pick back up. Over the past month, Biden’s high-profile fight with foreign producers such as Saudi Arabia over oil production has bled over into other realms of diplomacy.
Republicans argue that any attempt by the U.S. to reduce fossil fuel production will make the nation more reliant on competitors like China and Russia, and imports from these countries will simply replace the domestic supply to meet America’s demands for energy. However, Biden and Democrats in Congress are not actually advocating for canceling the industry’s current operations. They’re mulling options for reducing future drilling, and only on public lands and ocean waters.
In fact, the Biden administration recently offered to lease more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling companies, although the industry showed only a modest interest in expanding its already wide foothold in the Gulf. The administration is also planning on leasing up to 734,000 acres of public lands across the country next year despite objections from environmental groups, which filed lawsuits to stop both lease sales.
Climate justice activists are demanding much more from the Biden administration, including a halt to new pipelines and other infrastructure expansions as well as reparations for communities harmed by climate disruption and industrial polluters.
Stauber claimed Biden’s “ban” on oil and gas leasing on public lands threw the industry “into chaos,” but a federal judge blocked Biden’s leasing moratorium earlier this year. Oil and gas companies are already leasing at least 26 million acres of public lands, and less than half of these acres are currently used for drilling, according to Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Federal researchers estimate that nearly a quarter of domestic carbon dioxide emissions came from fossil fuels produced on public lands and ocean waters from 2005 to 2014, and Biden pledged on the campaign trail to ban new leasing. Still, his executive order only placed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing, allowing the Interior Department time to conduct an internal review of leasing programs that the Government Accountability Office has flagged as “vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement.”
Regulators released the results of the internal review in a report last week that identified “significant shortcomings” in the leasing program and recommended several reforms supported by Democrats in Congress, including an increase in royalties and rents paid by drillers to provide a “fair return” for taxpayers.
The Interior Department report on its leasing programs and the climate-warming emissions from oil and gas drilling on public lands were the focus of the House Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee hearing that saw Republicans attacking Biden over gas prices on Thursday. For their part, Democrats on the subcommittee said they are encouraged by the Interior Department’s embrace of reform but are disappointed that the leasing report only mentions emissions — and the “climate-related costs that must be borne by taxpayers” — in passing.
“In my view, this was a missed opportunity, and it’s a critical issue we must address,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat from California and chair of the subcommittee. “America’s public lands contain massive fossil fuel reserves, and Interior’s leasing practices and its management of these resources are incredibly outdated and destructive.”
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