Gas prices spike as support for Russian oil ban grows
Gas prices have spiked to over $4 a gallon as energy markets are rocked by Russia’s war in Ukraine, something that may be aggravated further if Congress adopts bipartisan calls to ban Russian oil.
On Monday, the fuel pricing analysis platform GasBuddy reported that the national average reached a 14-year high of $4.104 per gallon, surpassing the previous all-time high of $4.103 recorded in 2008.
The most recent jump in prices is clearly connected directly to Russia’s invasion and the international sanctions imposed on Moscow in response.
The has been broad bipartisan support for those actions amid wide revulsion with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, which is leading to heavy civilian casualties as Russia hits non-military targets.
The question is how much patience American consumers will show for higher prices at the pump that are partly a product of what many in the political class see as a just response to Russian aggression.
Prices were already high before the most recent crisis, and were causing political problems for President Biden and the White House, which had been battered by complaints over inflation.
At least some Democrats think Biden will continue to accumulate political hits from the historically high prices.
“The short answer is that the higher gas prices go and the longer they continue to be such, that will hurt the president and Democrats over time,” said Ivan Zapien, a lobbyist and former Democratic National Committee official. “At least a segment of the American electorate is willing to do some sacrifices that are being asked, but long term, it is usually a pretty dramatic test that ends up hurting whoever is asking for the sacrifices.”
The White House has put out the message that it will do everything it can to mitigate pain for U.S. consumers. But Biden has publicly acknowledged that there will be costs for the U.S. economy and American households as a result of the war and the economic noose the international community has sought to put around Moscow.
“The president’s message is that he is going to do everything we can, everything he can, to reduce the impact on the American people, including the price of gas,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. She also added pointedly that it was Putin who had “created instability on the markets.”
Biden entered the Russia-Ukraine crisis at a low moment in his presidency, with approval ratings in the low 40s.
But polls show a majority of Americans approve of his handling of the war so far, with 52 percent of Americans surveyed in the latest NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist National Poll saying they approve of his response and 83 percent supporting the economic sanctions placed on Russia.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans surveyed also said they still support the economic sanctions against Russia even if they result in higher energy prices in the U.S.
Republicans were going on the attack over energy prices and Biden’s energy policies even before the most recent price spike, arguing Biden’s policies hurt U.S. production.
“A return to affordable gasoline and reliable energy sources requires changing who controls the U.S. Senate and House. With each passing day of high gas prices, this becomes very clear to voters,” GOPac Chairman David Avella told The Hill in an email.
A ban on Russian oil imports would rock markets further, yet there are bipartisan calls to take that step.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is exploring legislative options to ban Russian oil and energy and said last week she’s “all for” a ban. In the Senate, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and others introduced a bill to ban Russian oil imports.
In a statement Monday, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), Ways and Means ranking member Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Finance ranking member Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) in a statement that they will introduce a proposal to ban energy imports.
“While Congress needs to do more, as the congressional leaders with jurisdiction over our nation’s trade policy, we are committed to using the tools at our disposal to stop Russia’s unconscionable and unjust war on Ukraine and to hold Belarus accountable for its involvement,” they wrote.
Psaki said the White House was discussing the matter internally and no decision had been made.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN that he spoke to Biden and other members of the Cabinet about Russian oil and that they are talking to European allies about banning the import of oil “while making sure that there is still an appropriate supply of oil on world markets.”
Senior U.S. officials took a rare trip to Venezuela this weekend for talks about potentially easing sanctions on oil exports from that country, while the administration considers banning Russian oil.
The White House has pushed back at GOP suggestions that the administration is limiting oil supplies in the U.S.
The U.S. currently has more than 9,000 unused oil and gas leases, although making use of those leases would not immediately start oil flowing from them. The number of American oil rigs has more than doubled since July 2020, from 172 to 519 as of last week. The number remains significantly below the 800 rigs recorded in 2019, however.
Europe depends heavily on Russian oil and natural gas exports, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Monday that Russian oil and gas is of “essential importance” to the European economy.
The U.S. and allies have been imposing sanctions against Russia in lockstep so far and the White House has touted the coordination among Biden and European leaders.
In potentially banning Russia oil, the administration would break that lockstep, a move that Eric Ueland, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights under former President Trump, argued isn’t bad.
“I believe that the United States leading means that at times we’re well ahead of our European allies,” Ueland said. “I think that is a strong message that the United States would be out front here and ahead of European countries or other countries that might also choose to ban Russian energies until Russia pulls out of Ukraine.”
Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, pushed back on the notion that a crackdown on Russian energy imports would mean a noticeable increase in pain at the pump for the average American.
“We import less than 5 percent of our imported oil from Russia. Overall, the U.S. now exports more oil than it imports,” Snape told The Hill in an email. “Our electric car industry is growing significantly every day. We shouldn’t be paying a murderous dictator with oil money to wage an illegal war in Ukraine.”
Snape also said the prospect of an import freeze should not prompt increased domestic oil exploration, despite numerous Republicans’ call for that response.
“The U.S. is awash in oil. 40 percent of all world trade is to carry fossil fuels to another destination,” he said. “We should be ramping down our oil and gas consumption in the United States in general, stop trading in it, and invest more in clean renewable energy.”