Biden's dilemma: Pushing fossil fuels to cut gas prices while promoting clean energy agenda

President Joe Biden finds himself in a political quandary: how to address a crisis that risks sinking his party in the mid-term elections while not turning off climate voters.

  • Soaring fuel prices point to the challenge of U.S. transition to clean and renewable energy.
  • Joe Biden made fig hting climate change a priority but now embraces oil and gas to ease fuel prices.
  • Next few weeks could be crucial for the climate change movement in the U.S.

WASHINGTON – Democrats' ambitious climate change agenda faced long odds before Russia's invasion of Ukraine further exposed America's continued dependence on fossil fuels.

Soaring gas prices, climbing before the war but skyrocketing since, have underscored the challenge of transitioning the nation toward clean and renewable energy.

“With inflation and now with the Ukraine crisis, you’ve started to see some of the energy reality that we’re in,” said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist in Washington. “We really do use internal combustion engines, right? They move the economy.”

President Joe Biden, who made combating climate change a key part of his economic agenda, suddenly finds himself in a political quandary: how to address a crisis that risks sinking his party in the midterm elections while not turning off the climate voters who want to see him take bold action to green the economy.

 All of which makes the next several weeks crucial for the climate change movement in the U.S. While the looming prospect of $6 per gallon gas has energized conservatives who want domestically produced oil, natural gas and coal to keep powering much of America's economy, progressives say it should be a catalyst to expand wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a leading progressive voice in Congress, said passing a major climate bill before the midterms has become an "existential" moment.

"If we don't do climate before 2022, we may miss the opportunity for who knows how many years?" he told USA TODAY. "We need to wake up, look at the political reality and do everything we can to get climate passed before November, or we're really doing a disservice to future generations."

Khanna and his fellow Democrats acknowledge the growing likelihood that Republicans will take back the House in November and will block legislation that doesn't emphasize fossil fuels.

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in line to be the next speaker if Republicans win the House, is proposing to remove restrictions on natural gas development, restart the federal onshore and offshore leasing program pushed by then-President Donald Trump,  and immediately approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

"The solution is obvious: rapidly increase American energy production, thus replacing Russian oil and gas with energy made in the U.S.A.," he said last month.

Biden's initial moves in the wake of the invasion have demonstrated the challenge of a clean energy transition.

He has responded to the recent spike in gas prices by tapping into the nation's oil reservespushing the U.S. petroleum industry to boost production and courting despotic nations abroad for more oil to compensate for a ban on Russian energy imports he imposed.

But the long-term solution, Biden said, is making the U.S. energy independent.

"Ultimately, we and the whole world need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels altogether," he said at the White House late last month. "We need to choose long-term security over energy and climate vulnerability."

Wind is the largest source of renewable energy in America, providing 9.2% of the country's utility-scale power. In eight states, wind provides over 25% of the energy generated.

TAMING SOARING PRICES:Will gas prices ease with Biden's release from strategic reserve? Experts say it's not enough

The priorities for climate change advocates

Environmental advocates specifically point to a roughly $550 billion package of clean energy initiatives that would mark the federal government’s most ambitious effort to tackle climate change. The money was part of Biden's larger Build Back Better bill that passed the House in November but which has since fizzled in the Senate.

It would include billions to swap out as many as 165,000 gas-guzzling U.S. Postal Service trucks for electric models by the end of the decade, as well as school and transit buses across the country, and funds for the electrification of American ports. There’s also $6 billion for coastal and Great Lakes restoration and climate resiliency projects, $2.5 billion for restoration of ecosystems on public lands, and a ban on offshore oil drilling that Trump had authorized.

As much as $30 billion is set aside for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps – modeled after the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps – to create an army of young activists, earning at least $15 per hour, to combat the effects of a warming planet. The jobs could involve planting trees, helping communities transition to clean energy and assisting local governments to prepare for and recover from worsening natural disasters.

There’s also an environmental justice initiative under which minority or low-income communities would receive a disproportionately large amount of available resources.

Biden himself has committed to dramatically cutting greenhouse gas levels to half of what they were in 2005. But advocates say those plans would be practically impossible to meet without serious action now – action that climate activists say $6 gas should make mandatory.

"It is clear that the only real solution to high unreliable energy costs is investing in clean renewable energy here in the United States so that we are no longer reliant on petrostate autocrats," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, referring to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. "We simply cannot drill our way to lower gas prices or to energy independence."

The U.S. power grid is close to self-sufficiency. It's the transportation sector that's more volatile because Americans are still relying on foreign countries for much of their fuel.

In 2021, the United States imported about 8.47 million barrels per day of petroleum (most of that crude oil) from 73 countries. Canada provided about half, but the U.S. also imported hundreds of thousands of barrels from countries that currently have poor relations with the U.S., including Russia (which provided about 8%) and Saudi Arabia (about 5%), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

BIOFUELS:Biden wants to expand use of ethanol gas blend into summer to ease pump prices

Campaign promises meet rising gas prices

Biden’s decision to release oil from the nation’s strategic reserves and to call for oil and gas companies to ramp up production even as he is advocating the nation move toward cleaner energy “just shows the raw, naked political position that this administration is in,” Maisano said.

On one side, climate activists who supported Biden’s campaign for president are pushing for him to move away from fossil fuels and to decarbonize the economy. On the other hand, Americans are clamoring for Biden to do something to help bring down gas prices.

The result has been mixed signals coming from the administration as it tries to walk a fine line, Maisano said.

“I don’t know that they’re doing it that well,” he said.

Climate activists have been careful not to fault Biden for his short-term moves to keep gas prices low, saying the immediate crisis deserves a swift response to protect consumers and that it won't deter their long-term strategy. Sittenfeld with LCV also blames much of the price increase on "gouging" by oil companies, a charge that industry executives deny. Independent analysts say the global market has much more influence on the price of gas.

SOARING FUEL PRICES:Are oil and gas companies price gouging consumers at the pump?

High energy prices don’t mean that the administration should abandon its goal of reducing carbon emissions, said Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the Clean Energy Program at Third Way, a Washington think tank.

“It just means we can't ignore the realities of fossil fuels and those markets and the impact that they're having on Americans,” Fitzpatrick said. “It means we can’t respond with just a transition immediately to clean and renewable energy. We have to think about how do we actually deal with the supply issue for as long as we need and will be using a supply of oil and gas.”

There’s no way for the U.S. to produce its way out of the volatility of oil markets, Fitzpatrick said.

“If we can reduce the overall amount of oil we are using as an economy, we can start to insulate ourselves,” he said. “But that’s going to take some time. And in the interim, that means we have to be cognizant of the sensitivities and the needs people have around prices.”

Biden’s response to high gas prices shows “you can work toward long-term goals and make progress there without losing touch with the reality of today,” Fitzpatrick said.

“President Biden is responding to the impacts that all Americans are feeling right now because of prices,” he said. “I’m feeling it – it’s terrible. This is not something we can ignore. I wouldn't be impressed by a leader who pretended that those things weren’t actually happening.”

'A STARK REMINDER':Biden says the Ukraine crisis shows why the U.S. must become energy independent. Is that possible?