On Tuesday, the day the average gas price in the U.S. beat a record set in 2008, President Joe Biden announced that the United States will halt imports of Russian oil in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. But the Republican Party would prefer you focus on the record-high price to fill your tank than on any bipartisan support for cutting off Russia.
“Joe Biden caused this and doesn’t seem to care,” Nathan Brand, the Republican National Committee’s deputy communications director, tweeted Tuesday about the new record. The party’s rapid response director, Tommy Pigott, captioned a 2019 video of Biden pledging to end fossil fuel with, “The pain at the pump is the point.” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who co-sponsored a GOP bill to cut off Russian oil, was one of several elected Republicans demanding that Biden “take the shackles off American energy.”
In the race to politically exploit the high cost of gas, Republicans are banking on voters not caring that they’re lying through their teeth about how much of this is Biden’s fault. The president does not, as they would have you believe, have a dial in the Oval Office that he uses to set gas prices. Meanwhile, suggested fixes the GOP has offered up would do nothing to shrink Americans’ costs, which suits them just fine for now.
Vox’s Rebecca Leber put together a great roundup of the myths that Republicans have been touting, including their claim that Biden choked off oil production and that it’s Democrats who aren’t “flipping the switch” on more production. As Leber noted, oil companies are the ones who won’t be ramping up production anytime soon. The industry is still trying to recover its losses from during the pandemic, when demand for oil cratered and prices briefly plunged to negative levels. Likewise, while the number of active rigs in the U.S. continues to rise after that 2020 crash, oil companies, like most other industries, are struggling to hire workers and procure equipment amid the ongoing supply chain backlog.
The demand for oil is back to pre-pandemic levels, potentially increasing the price of products across the board — and nobody likes to be in charge when Americans’ costs go up. That was true during the George W. Bush administration when the price of crude oil hit $145 per barrel in June 2008 as worried investors looked for a safe haven. (It didn't work.) And it was true under former President Barack Obama when demand recovered after the 2008 financial crash and the ensuing Great Recession.
Crude oil was trading around $126 per barrel Tuesday, 58 percent higher than the roughly $80 per barrel it was at before Russia’s aggression against Ukraine roiled the market. That price, which makes up over half the total cost per gallon of gas, is based on global demand — something Biden has even less control over than how much your local Exxon station charges.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration shows American production of petroleum to be near its pre-pandemic high, while crude oil production specifically should hit that benchmark next year. And it's worth noting that the U.S. spent the last two years as a net exporter of petroleum — but is forecast to increase its crude oil imports. So while America pumping more oil could help meet domestic consumption needs, global demand is something the U.S. can do little about, absent asking OPEC countries to pump more crude.
But is there anything to the idea that Biden’s policies so far have blocked the U.S. from producing and importing even more oil? Well, not really. The death of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada is a favorite talking point for Republicans, but that pipeline wasn’t even scheduled to be operational until next year, which would have no impact on today’s gas prices. Likewise, Biden’s pause on licensing new federal lands for drilling, which was overturned in court, didn’t stop those licenses already issued from being used; there are also 9,000 approved permits that haven’t been used yet.
As for some of the steps that Republicans are suggesting Biden take to lower prices, none would have much short-term impact. But all of them just happen to fit within the same set of energy policies the GOP is constantly pushing. Even if the Biden administration were to announce today that it would subsidize every new oil well in America, it’s not like sticking a straw into a milkshake. The time that elapses between initial drilling to a completed well that can deliver hydrocarbons can span from a few months to a few years.
Democrats scrambling for a quick fix — like a proposed gas tax holiday — will find that they’re also out of luck. The biggest issue isn’t the domestic supply of oil or the taxes being paid. It’s how much Americans love and expect cheap gas, a problem the U.S. has only encouraged as an automobile-centric society. In the rural areas and suburbs where the GOP is already poised to do well, there are no mass transit options to replace the family car, leaving people there to spend more of their paycheck on gas than urban dwellers and meaning they are more ready to find someone to blame.
That’s perfectly fine for the GOP, whose members now get to have their cake and eat it, too. Biden has done just what Republicans who wanted to look tough on Russia wanted. As a token of their appreciation, they’ll spend the coming weeks and months working to convince Americans that it’s Biden — and not Russian President Vladimir Putin — who’s draining their wallets at the gas pump.