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A driver fills up their tank at a Chevron Gas Station in downtown Los Angeles in November 2021, when gas prices hit an average price of $4.676, the highest recorded average price for regular gasoline, according to AAA.
A driver fills up their tank at a Chevron Gas Station in downtown Los Angeles in November 2021, when gas prices hit an average price of $4.676, the highest recorded average price for regular gasoline, according to AAA.Al Seib / Los Angeles Time via Getty Images

Why the political debate over gas prices is such a mess

As one observer put it, in the debate over gas prices, Republicans are “lying through their teeth about how much of this is Biden’s fault.”


At face value, the cynicism surrounding Republicans’ rhetoric about gas prices is head-spinning. The party that demanded the Biden administration ban the import of Russian oil is the same party that’s blaming the Biden administration for consumers paying more at the pump — in response to the ban on important Russian oil.

But compounding the problem is the GOP’s policy incoherence and eagerness to peddle claims that are plainly untrue. The New York Times reported this week:

As gas prices hit a high this week, top Republican lawmakers took to the airwaves and the floors of Congress with misleading claims that pinned the blame on President Biden and his energy policies.... Gas price hikes, they said, were the result of Mr. Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, the temporary halt on new drilling leases on public lands and the surrendering of “energy independence” — all incorrect assertions.

Keeping up with the avalanche of dubious claims has been challenging, and it’s likely much of the public no longer knows what to think. But let’s quickly review some of the more common questions raised by the right as part of the recent debate.

Didn't gas prices drop toward the end of Donald Trump’s term? Yes, and the former president likes to take credit for that, but he shouldn’t. Gas prices fell in 2020 for the same reason they fell in 2008: There was a recession. As the Covid-19 crisis intensified, demand collapsed, supply grew, and so prices dropped. That’s the result of Capitalism 101, not Republican energy policies.

Why did gas prices start climbing “the day President Biden took office”? That’s what Republicans have claimed, but it’s plainly false. In fact, prices were already on the rise by Inauguration Day 2021.

Why did the Biden White House kill domestic energy production? To the disappointment of many on the left, we’ve known for months that the Democratic administration has done largely the opposite. As a Vox report explained last week, “Biden has done nothing to halt oil leasing. In fact, the Biden administration has outpaced Trump in issuing drilling permits on public lands and water in its first year, according to federal data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity.”

Can’t Biden simply increase domestic production? There is no state-run oil company capable of conducting its own drilling operation. What the administration can do is issue drilling permits to private companies, which is what’s already happened. Those companies could boost production, but that largely has not happened — in large part because they’re gun shy about the economy, though greed appears to have something to do with it.

Isn’t the cancelation of the Keystone pipeline partly to blame for high prices? Not in this reality, it’s not. As the Times’ report added, “By the time Mr. Biden rescinded its permit on his first day in office, just 8 percent of [Keystone] had been built. Even if Mr. Biden had greenlighted the project and TransCanada, now known as TC Energy, had won its court battles, it is unlikely that the pipeline would have been operational today given that the company estimated in March 2020 that it would have entered into service in 2023.” (Republican Rep. August Pfluger insisted this week that the administration should turn the pipeline “back on,” which didn’t make any sense at all, since it was never “on” in the first place.)

Why isn’t the United States “energy independent,” the way it was under Trump? Putting aside the fact that “energy independent” is a politically meaningless phrase with little policy value, the truth remains that the United States is still a net exporter. That was true before Biden took office, and it’s still true while he remains in office.

The Times' report added, "The country became a net exporter of petroleum in 2020, the first time since at least 1949. That remained the case in 2021. It became a net exporter of natural gas in 2018 and remains so today, with exports reaching record levels in 2021."

Why is U.S. energy production going down under Biden? It’s not. U.S. energy production is going up under Biden (again, to the disappointment of many on the left).

Why do Democrats keep blaming Vladimir Putin for higher prices? Because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed prices higher. Perhaps the better question is why GOP leaders seem so eager to let Putin off the hook and instead blame their own country's leaders.

Wouldn’t increased drilling in the U.S. make a meaningful differences on prices at the pump? That’s never worked before, and no one seriously believes it would work now.

Aren’t Biden’s regulations strangling the energy industry? John Kemp, senior market analyst at Thomson Reuters, said this week, “There’s no evidence that the regulatory environment is what has held the U.S. oil and gas sector back, and by extension, no indication that making the regulatory environment more permissive would generate additional production in the near term.”

As my MSNBC colleague Hayes Brown added this week, “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.”