WASHINGTON — President Biden entered office promising to tackle the planet’s climate crisis. But rising gas prices, driven in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompted the environmentally conscious president to do something unlikely: embrace oil.
On Tuesday, Mr Biden traveled to Iowa, where he announced the Environmental Protection Agency would temporarily lift regulations banning the summer use of an ethanol-gasoline blend known as E15. , which contributes to smog in the warmer months. Mr Biden has said his government will forego regulations in order to lower the price of gasoline at the pump for many Americans.
“It’s going to help some people and I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help, even if it’s an extra dollar or two in the pockets when they fill up, to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. Mr. Biden said after taking a tour of a facility that produces 150 million gallons of bioethanol a year. He later added, “When you have choice, you have competition. When you have competition, you have better prices.
Ethanol announcement is Mr Biden’s latest White House move that flies in the face of promises he made as presidential candidate to pivot the United States away from fossil fuels . The price of gas, it seems, has changed his calculus. The average cost of a gallon of gasoline last October was $3.32; in March it was around $4.32.
Last month, the president proposed a new policy aimed at pressuring oil companies to drill oil on unused land, saying the companies have thousands of “permits to dig oil if they wish”. . Why aren’t they pumping oil? Mr Biden also announced the sale of 180 million barrels of oil from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next six months, the largest release ever in history.
“It will provide a historic amount of supply for a historic length of time,” Biden said at the time.
Mr Biden has walked a cautious tightrope in the weeks since US sanctions on Russian oil and gas sent energy prices soaring. Even as he implored oil producers to pump more crude, the president sought to assure his political base that meeting the needs of the current crisis will not distract from the longer-term goal of s away from fossil fuels that lead to dangerous climate change. .
The president’s embrace of oil underscores his delicate position between two competing priorities: the imperative to reduce America’s use of fossil fuels and the pressure to respond to rising gas prices.
“I don’t think Joe Biden at the start of his term thought he would spend his second year mining the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or flying to Des Moines to approve E15 waivers,” Barry Rabe said. professor of political science and environmental policy at the University of Michigan.
With his broader climate change agenda and investments in wind, solar and electric vehicles largely stalled in Congress, the president’s allies say his near-term pro-oil actions could further disillusion environmentally conscious voters that Democrats must present to Congress. elections this fall.
“Climate voters are likely to be disappointed unless there is a major legislative achievement,” Rabe said.
Mr. Biden’s recent actions have drawn criticism from many parts of the environmental community. Mitch Jones, chief policy officer of the lobbying arm of the non-profit group Food & Water Watch, said in a statement that the decision to lift the summer ban on E15 “plunges us deeper into the hole of dirty fossil fuel mixtures”.
White House officials have disputed the idea that Mr. Biden has turned to fossil fuels. They note that its environmental policies have always envisioned a continued reliance on oil and gas as the country makes a year-long transition to cleaner energy sources.
And they said the current energy crisis is a stark example of why they believe Congress and Republicans should support switching to other forms of energy and reducing America’s dependence on oil.
“Families have to take their kids to school and to work, groceries and other things – and sometimes that requires gas today, this month and this year,” Vedant Patel said. , White House spokesman. “But at the same time, we need to speed up – not slow down – our transition to clean energy.”
In recent weeks, Biden administration officials have announced funding to make homes energy efficient, launched a new conservation program and said the president will invoke the Defense Production Act to encourage domestic mining and processing of minerals needed to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles.
Republicans and oil and gas industry lobbyists have sought to blame high gas prices on Mr Biden’s climate agenda, arguing that prices would be lower if the White House had not pursued programs aimed at changing the country to other forms of clean energy.
“Don’t blame gas prices on Putin,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, told Fox News earlier this month.
He added: “It is a reaction to the shutdown of the fossil fuel industry. They pursue them in every way imaginable.
But in reality, Mr. Biden has had limited success in delivering his climate agenda — largely due to opposition from Republicans and the energy industry. So experts say it’s hard to blame higher gas prices on the effects of these proposals, which have yet to be enacted.
For example, Mr. Biden has proposed $300 billion in tax incentives to galvanize markets for wind and solar power and electric vehicles. If passed, it could cut the country’s emissions by about 25% by 2030. The legislation passed the House but stalled in the Senate over opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia.
Mr. Biden has also sought to suspend new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, a move the oil industry has maintained on the decline in production. Yet that policy was stopped by the courts, and Mr. Biden auctioned more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico last year — the biggest lease sale in history.
Officials estimated that allowing the ethanol blend to be sold in the summer would cut 10 cents from every gallon of gasoline purchased at the roughly 2,300 stations nationwide that offer it, and touted the move as a step toward “l ‘energy independence’.
That’s a small percentage of the 150,000 gas stations across the country, according to NACS, the trade association that represents convenience stores.
Mr Biden also faces growing pressure to lower energy prices, which helped drive the fastest rate of inflation since 1981 in March. A gallon of gasoline cost an average of $4.10 on Tuesday, according to AAA.
Ethanol is made from corn and other crops and has been blended into certain types of gasoline for years to reduce dependence on petroleum. But the higher volatility of the mixture can contribute to smog in hot weather. For this reason, environmental groups have traditionally opposed lifting the summer ban. The same goes for oil companies, who fear that greater use of ethanol will reduce their sales.
The extent to which the presence of ethanol holds fuel prices down has been the subject of debate among economists. Some experts said the decision is likely to reap greater political than financial benefits.
“It’s still very, very small compared to the release of the strategic petroleum reserve,” said David Victor, a climate policy expert at the University of California, San Diego. “This one is much more of a transparent political decision.”
And the environmental benefits of biofuels are undermined by the way they drive up corn and food prices, some energy experts say.
Corn state lawmakers and industry leaders have urged Biden to fill the void created by the United States’ ban on Russian oil exports with biofuels. Emily Skor, CEO of biofuel trade association group Growth Energy, called the move a “major win” for energy security.
“These are tough choices and I don’t think it’s something they value,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the nonprofit League of Conservation Voters. “I believe they’re striving to do that in a way that doesn’t lock in decades of fossil fuel infrastructure or pollution, and I think they remain more committed than ever to meeting the moment on the climate.”