Energy & Environment

Gas prices lead to tensions within Democratic Party

Progressives are concerned that high gas prices are worsening inequalities, creating tension between activists who want Democrats to do more to condemn big oil and those trying to navigate Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine.  

Some on the left are critical of their own party’s ties to fossil fuel, saying Democrats should be doing more to curb the industry’s influence and clout.  

“We seem to have little or no political will to ensure accountability and to get the oil and gas industry to straighten up and fly right,” said Jeri Shepherd, a progressive Democratic National Committee member from Colorado. “Regular people are going to be feeling the pain, and we as a political system are going to be indifferent.”  

Liberals have often targeted oil and gas corporations, and anger is rising that such firms are entering a boom time even as their customers are hit with inflation. Gas prices have risen to well above $4 per gallon across the country.   

The calls were joined on Wednesday by President Biden, who took aim at the oil giants. 

“Last time oil was $96 a barrel, gas was $3.62 a gallon. Now it’s $4.31,” Biden tweeted. “Oil and gas companies shouldn’t pad their profits at the expense of hardworking Americans.”   

Biden was piqued that gas prices had not fallen even as oil prices had.  

Gas prices averaged $4.32 per gallon on Tuesday, according to the AAA.   

“Short version: If the price of oil goes down, the price of gas should also go down,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Twitter.  

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last week aimed at taxing “windfall profits” on crude oil. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been vocal about rising gas prices for years, reiterated his support for the measure, which is also backed by climate hawks outside of Congress.  

The rising gas prices have exacerbated Biden’s political problems with inflation, which have cut into his campaign pledge to give working- and middle-class people relief in their daily lives.   

The rhetoric from climate groups has also stepped up. Groups are accusing the oil companies of using the Russian war to boost profits and to take advantage of average consumers — all at the expense of the climate.  

“The fossil fuel industry is really showing us their playbook,” said John Paul Mejia, national spokesperson with the grassroots-led Sunrise Movement. He argued that corporations are “looting Americans at the gas pump.”

“I think everyone’s seeing through that right now,” he said.   

Democrats are divided over how to address the issue.   

On the campaign trail, left-wing endorsers and organizers are broadly supporting candidates who reject fossil fuel contributions, including in a high-profile Democratic primary match-up in Texas. Insurgent Jessica Cisneros is headed for a runoff election against Rep. Henry Cuellar, who has taken contributions from political action committees linked to the industry.   

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who proudly accepts fossil fuel funding, has caught fury from progressives for holding up Biden’s Build Back Better package in the Senate.   

Some on the left have also criticized Biden directly, saying he is facing a choice either to transition to clean renewable energy or to give more leverage to fossil fuel executives.  

Others, however, have shied away from attacking the president, particularly one navigating the crisis in Ukraine.   

“There are real villains,” said Zac Petkanas, a senior adviser to Invest in America Action, a group advocating for more public spending. “We have a mad man invading sovereign countries that is driving up not just the cost of fuel, but very likely food and other things down the line.”  

“A cost is a cost is a cost, whether you’re paying a gas station to fill up your tank or a pharmacist to fill out a prescription,” he said. “We need to let people know that not only do we get that things cost too much, but we are laser focused on getting those costs down.”  

Biden has already taken action to decrease prices, including dipping into the nation’s strategic oil reserves, and suggested in his State of the Union address that he may do more. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last week asked top oil leaders to increase the amount of oil they are producing, citing a state of “emergency.” 

“We have to responsibly increase short-term supply where we can right now to stabilize the market and minimize harm to American families,” Granholm said.   

She acknowledged in a later interview that the administration’s goal remains to “wean” the country off fossil fuels.   

The gas prices and general worries about inflation are issues that Republicans have used to attack Biden and Democrats and are another reason why the party is pessimistic about retaining the House majority this fall.   

While the price of oil did dip below $100 per barrel this week, the price of gas has remained frustratingly high and Biden has warned of tough days ahead.  

No matter what, he is likely to face more pressure from the left to take more actions against oil companies and to back renewable energy sources.   

“Fighting authoritarians and oil oligarchs by merely propagating and empowering our own is a false solution,” Mejia, of the Sunrise Movement, said. “Continuing to rely on oil and gas is nowhere near energy secure.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Big Oil democratic tensions fuel costs gas prices Inflation invasion Jen Psaki Jennifer Granholm Joe Biden Joe Manchin Ro Khanna Russia Sheldon Whitehouse Ukraine

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