Energy pragmatism: United States style

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There’s an uncomfortable tension in the United States today around energy policy. When it comes to U.S. energy policy, around the production and consumption of oil and gas as well as climate change there seems to exist an irresoluble clash between two opposing ways of thinking.

Those that perceive the administration as abandoning its climate pledges and commitments to action in favor of increasing oil and gas production and those that applaud using the country’s abundant oil and gas to address and lessen the pain of energy insecurity. Responses to Biden’s most current energy policies illustrate the challenges of making policy when extremes are the norm.

Energy pragmatism does not mean choosing hydrocarbons over climate change action, both can occur simultaneously. Where the Biden administration needs some help is in its messaging. A clearer response to today’s global energy crises would be to highlight how the U.S. is responding as a responsible global leader, while still standing by its climate commitments. The United States, through its high production of oil and gas, is practicing agile energy security, showing that it can respond quickly to disruption.

The country can be both rich in oil and gas as well as use both at home and abroad as an important arsenal in our foreign policy and at the same time, and continue to produce and deploy high levels of green technologies and uphold our commitments to mitigate climate change.

Biden is proving he is not immune to coming in on one energy platform and quickly pivoting to another. Biden’s wartime energy posture departs from his campaign pledges to reduce fossil fuels and transition to more renewable energy and embark on aggressive action on climate change and this shift highlights how hard it can be to match ambition with reality but displays agile energy policy and how the United States can pivot quickly to counter insecurity.

War and high energy prices for consumers change things, forcing an energy balancing act for the United States and the world. When the price of a barrel of oil climbs above the $100 point, there’s a reason for concern. The world consumes almost 100 million barrels a day, and in the U.S. alone, that number is closer to 20 million barrels per day. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought energy insecurity into sharper focus; Europe’s energy dependence is hard to break, Russia exports more than 5 million per day, and almost 4 million of that goes to Europe, but U.S. oil and most notably, liquefied natural gas can and is providing a much-needed cushion in a time of crisis.

There are benefits from this U-turn in U.S. energy policy. While in the U.S., the mantra has turned to rapidly increasing the production of natural gas and oil, in Europe, it turns off the gas and stops the oil, two of the oft-repeated phrases facing the continent as it confronts its uncomfortable dependency on Russian energy. Ukrainian officials call the money Europe pays Russia for its energy “blood money” and “Russia crude finances genocide.” Europe needs alternatives to Russia’s oil, gas, coal and more, and the United States is offering its hydrocarbons to supplant those from Russia.

Some of the most recent energy announcements out of the White House are meant to tame gas prices as the summer driving season approaches. U.S. gas prices are shocking to the consumer, with averages across the country way over $4 a gallon and, in some places, over $5. Gas prices are political, and we have a history in the United States of presidents seeing prices at the pump as a harbinger of their fate — if they don’t bring prices down, they’re out; it’s the reality that gets repeated.

The United States has called on oil and gas producers to ramp up production, even going so far as threatening U.S. producers who do not use the land leases they hold. “We’re on a war footing,” announced U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm while speaking at an energy conference in Houston. The rapidly changing energy and geopolitical balances illustrate a new level of energy pragmatism, even amongst those most intransigent on their position towards fossil fuels. 

In the last month alone, the Biden administration has promised a record release of U.S. oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), totaling 180 million barrels over the next six months. It has called on oil and gas producers to increase production and, relaxed environmental regulations on corn-made ethanol production, boosting demand for the E-15 gasoline blend and opened up new federal public lands for hydrocarbon leases.

Demands for more production and relaxation of environmental standards to bring gasoline prices down at the pump seem hardly like the policy moves of a president committed to reducing carbon and changing behavior, but more like the moves of a pro-oil and gas advocate. An unlikely response could have been to let pain at the pump dampen demand, people might choose to drive less, but that also hits low and middle-income earners the hardest. Climate change may be our existential crisis, but the concern is the next election for politicians.

The challenge is balancing and prioritizing decarbonization while maintaining and sustaining energy security where consumers have come to expect affordable and reliable energy. In the United States, energy security, especially around higher oil prices, is deeply intertwined with national security today.

Unlike many Europeans, Americans have not been asked to make changes in consumption; there is no discussion of energy rationing, something Europeans are confronting as they make the hard transition away from Russian energy. U.S. energy policy favors cushioning the consumer from the economic pain of an energy crisis, Biden is not going to have a Jimmy Carter moment asking Americans to reduce their thermostats.

Although circumstances are different, there is an increasingly strong similarity between Biden’s energy policy strategy and his former boss, President Barak Obama. Obama employed what was best described as all-of-the-above approaches to energy, supporting oil and gas production while also pushing for an increase in renewable energy. Biden is now straddling all-of-the-above strategies and using the country’s energy abundance as an instrument of foreign policy support but also showing action on climate change does not have to be sacrificed in the process.

Carolyn Kissane, Ph.D., is the academic director of the NYU School of Professional Studies’ Center for Global Affairs, where she directs the graduate programs in Global Affairs and in Global Security, Conflict and Cyber Crime. She is the director of the SPS Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab. 

Tags Biden Climate change Energy gas prices Jennifer Granholm oil and gas Russia

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