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War means Biden needs a more muscular energy plan

A woman walks past a burning apartment building after shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine
AP/Evgeniy Maloletka

As he travels to Europe this week, President Biden seems to face nearly insurmountable new energy challenges. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spiked global oil prices, and constricted Europe’s natural gas supplies, putting new pressure on global energy production and exacerbating underlying U.S. inflation. Biden’s signature clean energy agenda, meanwhile, is stalled in Congress, even as devastating climate change impacts grow at home and abroad.

But out of crisis comes opportunity. The president now has an opportunity to recast his energy agenda as a more muscular and powerful response to the energy security, inflation and climate crises. Crucially, Biden can do so in a way that expands domestic political support for his agenda, while also helping Europe. 

To accomplish this, the White House must reframe Biden’s energy agenda as answering the war crisis by freeing up near-term U.S. natural gas exports to Europe and increasing global oil production, from both the U.S. and oil-rich allies, to fight inflation and gain support from moderates in Congress. At the same time, the resident must articulate the long-term opportunity for American to lead the world in breaking free from the last 50 years of chronic vulnerability to oil price shocks through electric vehicles and other clean energy technologies, while also cutting emissions to address climate change. Fundamentally, this is a way to meet this new moment of crisis while expanding the political and policy appeal of the clean energy investments he has proposed. But Biden should add oil and gas supply elements to provide a new security and anti-inflation rationale for his broader clean energy agenda. 

To better galvanize popular political and congressional support, the administration needs to explicitly appeal to business interests who have been on the sidelines of his clean energy bill. Biden met briefly with 16 top CEOs from the Business Roundtable at the White House on Tuesday for this purpose, telling the group “to invest in America itself, in manufacturing, climate, resilience, clean energy, so America can win the competition of the 21st century…. [to] help us grow while lowering costs and lowering the deficit.”

At the meeting, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase told Biden he should establish a “Marshall Plan” to produce greater natural gas exports to Europe and investments in new technologies including hydrogen and carbon capture. CEOs from oil and gas giants ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Marathon Petroleum also attended the meeting, but notably these companies have joined all congressional Republicans in fighting the president’s clean energy agenda in Congress.

This uniform opposition to Biden’s clean energy legislation stands in contrast to the significant energy industry and Republican support the White House was able to attract in passing the administration’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill last year. At the very least, expanding near term oil and gas supply elements in pending energy legislation would help gain support from holdout Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who in recent days has been rumored to be ready for new negotiations around the president’s clean energy agenda.

As Biden travels to Brussels this week to show solidarity with Ukraine, the whole of Europe, and democracies around the world in the fight against Russia, he should also portray his energy policy as promoting human rights and open societies. Recalling rhetoric from his successful 2020 campaign and FDR during World War II, the president should note that that clean energy technologies are part of a “Arsenal of Democracy,” expanding economic opportunities for free societies and lessening the long-term influence of petro-states while addressing climate change impacts that threaten to undermine all nations. The president should propose providing Europe more imports of U.S. liquefied natural gas to reduce its dependence on Russia, while also emphasizing joint efforts by the EU and U.S. to commercialize more energy technologies so that they are cheaper, cleaner and more geopolitically secure than current reliance on fossil fuels, including from autocratic nations like Russia. 

Even so, the president must also continue to shore up the domestic security rationale for clean energy to be successful. Much of the clean energy technology transition will rely on so-called “rare earth” minerals like lithium that today are dominated in their mining and processing by China. The U.S. has the opportunity to produce these minerals used in electric vehicle batteries and other technologies both at home and from our allies, and process them domestically as a centerpiece of an American clean energy revolution. Bipartisan legislation cosponsored by Manchin, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and others to accomplish this is pending, as is the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, focused on helping the U.S. compete with China and other nations in advanced technology including energy.

Russia’s war on Ukraine demands that the administration reevaluate the geopolitical costs of our current energy policies. Fortunately, the president has the opportunity to use America’s oil and gas resources today and especially our clean energy production potential to address these geopolitical, economic and climate challenges in a way that galvanizes support from the American people and moderates in Congress. He must not waste this moment.

Paul Bledsoe is an energy fellow and strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served at the Interior Department and White House Climate Change Task Force during the Clinton administration.

Tags Climate change Energy Energy policy Europe Joe Biden Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski Paul Bledsoe Russia Ukraine

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