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Beyond sanctions: President Biden should declare a national energy emergency

Associated Press/Andrew Harnik

President Biden’s announcement last week declaring a ban on the import of Russian oil and gas to the United States comes as welcome news. It accedes to bipartisan demands from Congress, as well as President Volodymyr Zelensky. But it doesn’t go far enough. In addition, the president should declare a national energy emergency.

Declaring a national emergency would empower the president to intervene in energy markets to shield American consumers from bearing too much of the burden through fast-increasing prices at the pump, which have hit record highs. Although the president cannot directly impose price controls, declaring an energy emergency would expand his options under a number of federal statutes to increase supply and manage demand, including increasing domestic energy production and conservation measures. It would also expand the president’s powers to address the root cause of the leverage that Russia has over the global economy: an over-dependence on fossil fuels. 

In responding to the Russian challenge, the United States should not simply adopt a policy of “Drill, Baby, Drill.” Although domestic production may need to be increased temporarily, declaring a national energy emergency would give the president authority to enact a long-term plan to support a global transition away from dependence fossil fuels. After all, even as Russia was invading Ukraine, climate scientists issued yet another report entreating global leaders to take drastic action to avoid a climate-destabilized future. Declaring an energy emergency would respond to this need, and it would follow, though with a narrower focus, previous calls from Democratic legislators to declare the climate crisis itself a national emergency.

Declaring a national energy emergency would unlock executive powers to accelerate efforts to transition away from fossils fuels in energy production, transportation, and industrial manufacturing. Specifically, it would empower the president to accelerate “energy production or construction” critical to national security under the Defense Production Act, including not only conventional oil and gas, but also solar and wind energy, battery storage, and improved transmission grids. It would also allow federal loan guarantees to critical industries to build electric vehicles, electric heat pumps, and high-speed rail. Emergency tariffs could be applied to enforce international climate obligations, perhaps in conjunction with the European Union’s Green Deal announced last July, as well as to manage global energy costs.

Some observers warn that declaring national emergencies can too easily can expand presidential power and undermine the democratic authority of Congress. Even in the face of increasingly urgent calls from scientists for climate action, however, Congress has been inert. The climate crisis won’t wait, and neither can American energy consumers.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows how the global struggles for democracy and climate solutions are intertwined. Authoritarian petrostates wield disproportionate influence because the global economy depends so heavily on fossils fuels. Over time, a large-scale shift to climate-friendly energy sources will reduce the geopolitical power of petrostates such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. A National Intelligence Estimate confirms that Vladimir Putin fears decarbonization efforts. He sees that the energy transition to address the climate crisis will degrade the power of his petrostate. However, in the near term this transition will also cause geopolitical instability in energy prices which are likely to play to the advantage of the petrostates. Declaring an energy emergency would give the President additional tools needed to address this economic instability, increasing fossil fuel supplies in the short run but also moving quickly toward building new energy resources for a sustainable future.

President Biden has already set precedents in using his power to declare national emergencies to punish the Chinese suppression of democracy in Hong Kong as well as to impose sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Declaring an energy emergency in general, and not just with respect to Russia in Ukraine, would unlock powers to help American consumers now and reduce the inordinate power of the petrostates.

With public opinion strongly favoring both the defense of Ukraine and action on climate change, the president should double down on his announcement to ban Russian fossil-fuel imports and declare a national energy emergency — not only to stop Putin, but also to begin to build a sustainable world in which authoritarian petrostates can no longer hold the global economy hostage.

Eric W. Orts is the Guardsmark professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Tags Armed Attack Climate change policy Energy development Energy economics Energy market Energy policy Energy transition Environmental Issue Joe Biden Low-carbon economy Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian oil ban Russian sanctions Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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