Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen.
As gas prices continue to rise, Big Oil wants you to blame Joe Biden.
Opining on Fox Business Network, energy industry analyst Phil Flynn claimed the Biden administration is “using cancel culture policies against the U.S. energy industry” and starving the market of domestic petroleum production. Other conservative commentators are attacking the Biden administration’s supposed “war on oil.”
The industry’s biggest lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute, is doing its best to tie the price of gasoline to Biden administration policies that aim to mitigate climate change. Large gas and oil producers were behind a social media marketing campaign last fall promoting fossil fuels, while conservative TikTok users encouraged each other to place stickers on gas pumps with Biden pointing to the price per gallon and saying, “I did that.”
This is a highly misleading narrative propagated by an industry scrambling to draw attention away from its record profits while capitalizing on inflation fears in an attempt to derail the essential transition to clean, affordable renewable energy.
The main reason the cost of gasoline rises — or falls — is the price of crude oil on global markets. At the outset of the pandemic in spring 2020, prices for crude at one point plunged below zero dollars. By last summer, they rose as the economy rebounded. Then they sank amid fears of omicron. Now they are back up again, having this month reached a price per barrel that hasn’t been seen since 2014. You get the picture.
During the past two weeks, Exxon, Shell, and Chevron posted sharp upturns in quarterly earnings, thanks to the rebound in global demand for oil; BP just reported its highest profits in eight years. Steep prices at the pump — and these sky-high earnings — are the result of high demand and an improving economy.
The disingenuous push by the oil and gas companies and their right-wing allies to blame President Biden is part and parcel of a longstanding, evidence-free oil industry PR strategy that dates to at least 2012, when API Director Erik Milto said, “Gasoline prices are higher today at least in part because government has neglected to pay sufficient attention to the importance of producing more of our own oil and natural gas.”
Although energy experts and economists agree that the rise in energy prices since last summer has stemmed from a surprising and rapid economic recovery, and despite fact-checks from media outlets including USA Today, The Washington Post, and PolitiFact, industry executives persist in telling lie after lie about what’s happening.
API CEO Mike Sommers blamed rising costs on Biden’s decisions to deny a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, pause new oil and gas leases, and suspend drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
This is another industry talking point: that Biden’s policies are cutting back drilling. In fact, Biden has approved more drilling permits on public land than Trump did in his first three years as president. In December, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm even urged oil drillers to produce more fossil fuels. “Please, take advantage of the leases that you have,” Granholm said. “Hire workers. Get your rig count up.” Meanwhile, U.S. oil production is projected to reach a record average of 12.6 million barrels per day by 2023, up from 11.8 million in November 2021.
Permitting more drilling and more pipelines won’t lower the price of gas today. If Biden had allowed the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, the cost of filling your car might even have increased, because Keystone was intended to promote gasoline exports. Crude oil is a commodity traded on international markets, and prices are influenced by global supply and demand.
Republicans and the oil industry are using consumers’ pain at the pump to weaken support for the transition to clean energy. With characteristic over-the-top hyperbole, Representative James Comer of Kentucky claimed that “Democrats continue to prioritize progressive and expensive environmental dreams while Americans are facing an energy crisis nightmare.” Washington Representative Dan Newhouse asserted that the Biden administration’s policies “have caused prices to shoot through the roof, and his plans to haphazardly cut out traditional energy sources and make America completely reliant on intermittent renewable resources will keep those prices rising.”
These same Republican leaders fail to acknowledge how the industry is profiting from the rapid economic turnaround. Exxon and BP both credited rising fuel costs with helping pad their bottom lines — and the top two dozen oil giants raked in $174 billion in profits for the first nine months of 2021. Oil companies will reap even more if crude prices soar over $100 per barrel, as many observers expect.
Extraordinary profits and deceptive spin are just more of the same from an industry that has for decades minimized the role of fossil fuels in heating the planet. It’s the same industry that now ignores the reality that transitioning to cleaner energy is realistic and within our grasp: Sales of electric vehicles have shot up in recent years, driven by high demand in China and Europe and most recently in the U.S. At the same time, the cost of wind and solar power has dropped significantly and is now competitive with natural gas and far less expensive than coal or nuclear power.
These moves will hurt Big Oil companies tethered to a fossil fuel future, but they will save money for consumers — not to mention save the planet from a climate crisis threatening our very survival.
The views expressed here reflect those of the author.
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