WASHINGTON – President Biden has taken office promising to tackle the planet’s climate crisis. But rising gas prices, spurred in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have prompted the environmentally conscious president to do something unlikely: embrace oil.
On Tuesday, Biden traveled to Iowa, where he announced that the Environmental Protection Agency would temporarily lift regulations banning the use of a blend of ethanol and gasoline known as E15, which contributes to smog during the warmer months. Mr. Biden said his government would waive the regulation in order to lower the price of gasoline at the pump for many Americans.
Biden said after touring a facility that produces 150 million gallons of bioethanol annually. He later added, “When you have a choice, you have competition. When you have competition, you have better prices.”
The ethanol announcement is the latest move by the Biden White House that goes against promises he made as a presidential candidate to wean the United States away from fossil fuels. It seems that the price of gas has changed its calculations. The average cost of a gallon of gas last October was $3.32. In March, it was about $4.32.
Last month, the president proposed a new policy aimed at pressuring oil companies to drill for oil in unused land, saying the companies had thousands of “permits to drill for oil if they wanted to. Why wouldn’t they pump oil?” Mr. Biden also announced a sale of 180 million barrels of oil from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the next six months, the largest ever release in history.
“It will provide a historical amount of supply for a historical period of time,” Mr. Biden said at the time.
Biden has walked a cautious tightrope in the weeks since US sanctions on Russian oil and gas sent energy prices up. Even as he called on oil producers to pump more crude, the president sought to reassure his political base that meeting the needs of today’s crisis would not distract from the long-term goal of moving away from fossil fuels that drive dangerous climate change. .
The president’s embrace of oil underscores his awkward position between two competing priorities: the imperative to reduce America’s use of fossil fuels and pressure to respond to rising gas prices.
“I don’t think that when his term began, Joe Biden thought he would spend his second year tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or traveling to Des Moines to agree to E15 waivers,” said Barry Rabe, professor of political science and environmental policy at Barry Rabe. University of Michigan.
With his broader agenda on climate change and investments in wind, solar and electric vehicles largely stalled in Congress, allies of the president say his short-term pro-oil measures could further disappoint the green-focused voters that Democrats need to turn to Congress. Elections this fall.
“Climate voters are likely to be frustrated, unless a major legislative breakthrough is achieved,” said Mr. Rabie.
Mr. Biden’s recent actions have drawn criticism in many parts of the environmental community. Mitch Jones, policy director for the lobbying arm of the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, said in a statement that the decision to waive the summer ban on E15 “leads us deeper into the pit of filthy fossil fuel mixtures.”
White House officials have disputed the idea that Mr. Biden has switched to embracing fossil fuels. They noted that his environmental policies have long envisioned a continued reliance on oil and gas as the country transitions over the years to cleaner energy sources.
They said the current energy crisis is a stark example of why they believe Congress and Republicans should support the transition to alternative forms of energy and reduce the United States’ dependence on oil.
“Families need to take their kids to school and go to work, get groceries and get on with their lives — and sometimes that requires gas today, this month and this year,” said Vidant Patel, a White House spokesman. “But at the same time we must accelerate – 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 extraction and processing of minerals needed to make batteries for electric cars.
Republicans and lobbyists for the oil and gas industries have sought to blame high gas prices on Mr. Biden’s climate agenda, arguing that prices would be lower if the White House did not pursue programs aimed at moving the country toward other forms of clean energy.
“Don’t blame Putin for gas prices,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky, said earlier this month on Fox News.
He added: “It is a reaction to the shutdown of the fossil fuel industry. They are going after them in every conceivable way.”
But in reality, Biden has had limited success in putting his climate agenda into action — in large part due to opposition from Republicans and the energy industry. So experts say it’s hard to blame rising gas prices for the effects of those proposals, which have yet to be enacted.
For example, Mr. Biden has proposed $300 billion in tax incentives to stimulate the markets for wind, solar, and electric vehicles. If enacted, it could cut the nation’s emissions by roughly 25 percent by 2030. The legislation passed in the House, but stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Republicans and Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.
Biden also sought to suspend new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, a move that has kept the oil industry hurting production. However, the courts halted the policy, and last year Biden auctioned more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico – the largest rental sale in history.
Officials estimated that allowing ethanol blends to be sold in the summer would reduce 10 cents from every gallon of gasoline purchased at the nearly 2,300 stations nationwide that serve it, casting the decision as a move toward “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.
Biden also faces mounting pressure to cut energy prices, which helped drive the fastest rate of inflation since 1981 in March. A gallon of gas averaged $4.10 on Tuesday, according to the AAA.
Ethanol is made from corn and other crops and has been mixed with some gasoline for years to reduce dependence on oil. But the higher volatility of this mixture can contribute to smog in warmer weather. For this reason, environmental groups have traditionally opposed lifting the summer ban. The same applies to oil companies, which fear that increased use of ethanol will reduce their sales.
The extent to which the presence of ethanol has affected lower fuel prices has been a topic of debate among economists. Some experts said the decision is likely to reap more political benefits than financial benefits.
“This is still very, very small compared to the SPR release,” said David Victor, a climate policy expert at the University of California, San Diego. “This is much more than a transparent political move.”
Some energy experts argue that the environmental benefits of biofuels are undermined by the way they raise corn and food prices.
Lawmakers and industry leaders in the corn state have urged Biden to bridge the gap created by a US embargo on Russian oil exports with biofuels. Emily Schorr, CEO of the Biofuels Trade Association Growth Energy Group, called the decision a “big win” for energy security.
“These are tough choices and I don’t think they’re anything they enjoy,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for Conservation Voters, a nonprofit group. “I think 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 more determined than ever to face the climate moment.”