In Depth

Record petrol prices in the US: who should carry the can? 

Conservatives are blaming Biden for the high cost of petrol as if there’s some ‘dial in the Oval Office’ that he uses to set prices

America broke a painful record last week, said Issues & Insights. The average price for a gallon of regular petrol crossed the $4.32 mark, surpassing the prior all-time high set in the summer of 2008. The White House is pretending that the soaring price is down to the Ukraine crisis, but don’t you believe it. It has just as much to do with its own war on America’s fossil-fuel industry. On his first day in the White House, Joe Biden killed off the Keystone XL pipeline that promised to bring in new oil supplies from Canada. Since then, he has blocked other drilling leases and permits. The truth is that the Democratic Party has long wanted petrol to be “priced as a luxury good”. Back in 2008, the man who would become Barack Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, declared, “we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe”. Well, now their dreams have come true.

Conservatives are rushing to blame the Biden administration for the high cost of petrol, said Hayes Brown on MSNBC.com. People have been putting up little stickers of Biden at petrol pumps showing him pointing at the price total with the caption “I DID THAT!”. But it’s ridiculous to blame him, as if there’s some “dial in the Oval Office that he uses to set gas prices”. The cost of petrol is set by global markets and wider industry trends; it shot up from $80 per barrel to more than $120 following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The Keystone pipeline wasn’t even due to come on stream until next year. The industry’s in no hurry to ramp up production: there are 9,000 drilling permits it hasn’t made use of yet.

There is one respect in which Washington politicians really can be blamed for this problem, said Henry Grabar on Slate, and that’s their failure to do more to reduce demand for petrol. The last time America had a sustained run of high petrol prices was between 2011 and 2014. This spurred President Obama to bring in ambitious fuel-efficiency goals for automakers. But under industry pressure, he added a loophole for vehicles with larger footprints. The result: cars got bigger. “By 2018, two in three new vehicles sold was an SUV or a pickup – up from less than one in two a decade earlier.” If only America had taken proper steps a decade ago to get people to drive smaller cars, and make the country more pedestrian- and public-transport-friendly, it wouldn’t be as sensitive to the next “gas price spike”.

 

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