WASHINGTON — President Biden took office and pledged to tackle the planet’s climate crisis. But rising gas prices, driven in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have prompted the environmentally conscious president to do something unlikely: embrace oil.
On Tuesday, Mr. Biden traveled to Iowa, where he announced that the Environmental Protection Agency would temporarily lift regulations banning the summer use of an ethanol-gasoline blend known as E15, which contributes to smog during the warmer months. . Mr Biden said his administration would waive regulation to lower the price of gas at the pump for many Americans.
“It’s going to help some people and I’m committed to doing everything I can to help, even if it’s an extra dollar or two in the pockets when they get full, make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. mr. Biden after taking a tour of a factory that produces 150 million gallons of bioethanol per year. He later added: “When you have a choice, you have competition. If you have competition, you have better prices.”
The ethanol announcement is the latest move by the White House from Mr. Biden that goes against the promises he made as a presidential candidate to do away with the United States from fossil fuels. It seems the price of gas has changed its calculus. The average cost of a gallon of gasoline last October was $3.32; in March it was about $4.32.
Last month, the president proposed a new policy to pressure oil companies to drill for oil on unused land, saying the companies have thousands of “licences to dig for oil if they want to.” Why don’t they pump 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 in history.
“It will provide a historic amount of supply for a historic amount of time,” Mr Biden said at the time.
Mr Biden has been cautiously on a tightrope in recent weeks since US sanctions on Russian oil and gas pushed energy prices up. While he has begged oil producers to pump more crude, the president has tried to assure his political base that meeting the needs of the current crisis will not distract from the long-term goal of moving away from the fossil fuels that cause dangerous climate change.
The president’s embrace for oil underscores his awkward position between two competing priorities: the need to reduce US use of fossil fuels and the pressure to respond to rising gas prices.
“I don’t think when his tenure began, Joe Biden thought he would spend his second year tapping into the strategic petroleum reserve or flying to Des Moines to approve E15 waivers,” said Barry Rabe, a senior executive. professor of political science and environmental policy at the University of Michigan.
Now that his broader climate change agenda and investment in wind, solar and electric vehicles has largely stalled in Congress, the president’s allies say his near-term pro-oil moves are the environmentally-minded voters Democrats need. have to run for congressional elections this fall.
“Climate voters are unlikely to be impressed barring a major legislative achievement,” said Mr Rabe.
Mr Biden’s recent actions have sparked criticism in many parts of the environmental community. Mitch Jones, chief executive of the lobbying arm of the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, said in a statement that the decision to lift the summer ban on E15 “drives us deeper into the hole of dirty fossil fuel mixtures.”
White House officials disputed the idea that Mr. Biden has switched to fossil fuels. They note that its environmental policy has always envisioned a continued reliance on oil and gas, as the country undergoes years of transition to cleaner energy sources.
And they said the current energy crisis is a clear example of why they believe Congress and Republicans should support the transition to alternative forms of energy and reduce US dependence on oil.
“Families need to drive their kids to school and work, run errands and live their lives — and sometimes that takes gas today, this month, and this year,” said Vedant Patel, a White House spokesman. “But at the same time, we need to accelerate — not slow down — our transition to clean energy.”
In recent weeks, officials in the Biden administration announced funding to make homes energy efficient, launched a new conservation program and said the president would invoke the Defense Production Act to encourage the domestic extraction and processing of minerals needed. to make batteries for electric vehicles.
Republicans and lobbyists for the oil and gas industry have tried to blame high gas prices on Biden’s climate agenda, arguing that prices would be lower had the White House not pursued programs to move the country to other forms of clean energy. to bring.
“Blame Putin on gas prices,” Republican leader Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell told Fox News earlier this month.
He added: “It is a response to the shutdown of the fossil fuel industry. They’re going after them in every way imaginable.”
But in reality, Mr. Biden has had limited success in setting his climate agenda — largely because of opposition from Republicans and the energy industry. So experts say it’s hard to blame higher gas prices for the effects of those proposals, which have yet to be implemented.
For example, Mr. Biden proposed $300 billion in tax breaks to boost wind and solar and electric vehicle markets. If passed, it could cut the country’s emissions by about 25 percent by 2030. That legislation was passed in the House but stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Republicans and West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin.
Biden has also sought to suspend new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, a move the oil industry has maintained, affecting production. Yet that policy was held back by the courts and Mr. Biden auctioned off more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico last year — the largest lease sale in history.
Officials estimated that allowing the sale of the ethanol blend in the summer would save 10 cents on every gallon of gasoline purchased at the roughly 2,300 stations across the country that offer it, and considered the decision a step toward “energy independence”.
That’s a small percentage of the 150,000 gas stations nationwide, according to NACS, the industry association that represents convenience stores.
Mr Biden also faces mounting pressure to cut energy prices, contributing to the highest inflation rate since March 1981. A gallon of gas cost an average of $4.10 on Tuesday, according to AAA.
Ethanol is made from corn and other crops and has been blended into some gasolines for years to reduce dependence on oil. But the blend’s higher volatility can contribute to smog in warmer weather. For this reason, environmental groups have traditionally objected to the lifting of the summer ban. This also applies to oil companies, who fear that increased use of ethanol will reduce their turnover.
The extent to which the presence of ethanol depresses fuel prices has been a subject of debate among economists. Some experts said the decision is likely to yield greater political benefits than financial ones.
“This is still very, very small compared to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve release,” said David Victor, a climate policy expert at the University of California, San Diego. “This is much more of a transparent political move.”
And the environmental benefits of biofuels are being undermined by the way they drive up corn and food prices, some energy experts argue.
Corn state lawmakers and industry leaders have urged Mr. Biden to fill the gap left by the United States’ ban on Russian biofuel oil exports. Emily Skor, CEO of the biofuel trading association group Growth Energy, called the decision “a major victory” for energy security.
“These are tough choices and I don’t think they like it,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit organization. “I really believe they’re working to do it in a way that doesn’t lock up decades more fossil fuel infrastructure or pollution, and I think they remain determined to make it to the moment on climate.”