The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s urgent moves on gas prices collide with lofty climate goals

The president took office determined to shift the nation’s course on climate change. That legacy could be threatened by the political urgency to cut gas prices.

President Biden speaks about his infrastructure plan on April 19 in Portsmouth, N.H. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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President Biden entered office triumphantly rejoining the Paris climate accord. He created powerful new climate positions, including one for former secretary of state John F. Kerry. He reversed Trump-era policies, revoking a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. And he declared the threat of climate change the “number one issue facing humanity.”

But over the past few weeks, he has authorized a historically large release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, resumed selling leases to drill on federal land and announced he is waiving an environmental restriction to allow summer sales of ethanol-based gasoline — all moves that are anathema to climate activists.

Some advocates are increasingly frustrated over the discordant approach, arguing that Biden is sacrificing some of his long-term goal of combating climate change — and a presidential legacy of helping steer the nation away from fossil fuels — in exchange for the short-term aim of lowering prices at the pump.

Beyond that, some contend the moves will barely affect gas prices.

“The administration is in a tough place, but none of those moves are going to do much in the short term to reduce prices — and they will have a long-term impact on our climate,” said Bill McKibben, the author and environmentalist who co-founded, a global grass-roots climate group. “It would be a lot better for our climate, and a lot smarter politically, if Biden clearly placed the blame for prices where it really rests — on Big Oil — and used this moment to help the country break free from fossil fuels.”

An energy boom is taking shape in Oklahoma, thanks to high oil prices fueled by a pandemic recovery and war in Ukraine. But who's drilling may surprise you. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The collision between lofty aspirations and political pressures comes to a head Friday when Biden visits Seattle to celebrate Earth Day, where he probably will be joined by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who has built his political career on fighting climate change. Protesters are expected to rally in front of the White House on Saturday to demand that Congress pass new climate legislation.

Biden’s supporters say the focus on gas prices and helping Europe through an energy crisis has made it harder for the administration to tout the steps it has taken to protect the environment, including new rules cracking down on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks and policies to cut methane emissions from oil and gas operations across the United States.

On Tuesday, the White House announced it is reversing former president Donald Trump’s action weakening a landmark environmental law on the construction of pipelines, highways and other projects. The new rule will restore a requirement that federal agencies scrutinize the climate impact of major infrastructure projects.

Administration officials say the recent maneuvers to increase the fuel supply are meant to address the immediate price shocks created by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the inflationary pressure that preceded it. They remain committed, they say, to combating climate change and reducing the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels over the long term.

In an interview Tuesday, Ali Zaidi, the deputy White House national climate adviser, pushed back on the notion that the administration had shifted its approach to climate change. “The president’s commitment and his policy positions on these key issues have been unwavering and unchanged,” Zaidi said.

But Biden also recognizes that people need help in the short term, he added. “His policy has always been to meet folks where they are,” Zaidi said. “And what that means in this context is addressing the emergency challenges precipitated by Putin’s aggression, while literally at the same time doing everything we can to accelerate the affordability and accessibility of technologies and tools that will help the American people achieve lasting energy security.”

Yet there is little doubt that recent days have produced the jarring image of a president who vowed to curb reliance on oil and gas instead trying to find fresh ways to increase its supply.

“He’s in a pickle,” said Samantha Gross, a fellow specializing in climate and energy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “His arguments have had to change because of the changing conditions, and the situation has gotten a lot harder for him politically. … The politics were always going to be hard for him, but the level of difficulty just went way up. It’s a tough hand to play.”

Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, a climate advocacy group, said the Biden administration — and the climate community — are in the midst of a fundamental shift in how they present their case to the public. They have long emphasized the jobs to be created by a green economy, he said, but in response to soaring inflation and a war in Ukraine, they are now emphasizing the savings Americans would see in a system less reliant on fossil fuels.

“It’s a whole different world as far as communicating around clean energy and climate,” Raad said. “It’s about lowering gas prices, and it’s about stopping petrol dictators like Vladimir Putin.”

Climate activists are also pushing the Senate to approve a House-passed bill that includes $555 billion in clean energy investments, which has stalled because of opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). That is far more important than the concerns over Biden’s recent moves to ramp up oil supply, they say.

“That is the ballgame — the rest of this is small potatoes compared to that,” Raad said. “I think that is where most of the frustration should lie, rather than some of these short-term announcements.”

Some environmental groups are urging patience with the administration’s attempts to bring down gas prices, saying Biden needs to address political reality in an effort to offset potential losses in the midterm elections that could derail the Democrats’ sweeping plans on climate.

“If some of the short-term steps they’re taking to alleviate the pain Americans are feeling at the pump and how they’re feeling squeezed are the price we have to pay to get 50 votes in the U.S. Senate for a transformative clean energy deal, I think it’s a price worth paying,” said David Kieve, president of EDF Action, the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund.

In the 15 months since Biden took office, the administration had largely focused on convincing Americans that the United States needs to pivot away from oil, gas and coal.

Biden campaigned on a pledge to reach net-zero emissions in the United States by 2050, a goal more ambitious than that of former president Barack Obama. Biden envisioned eliminating fossil fuels from the electricity sector by 2035 and increasing renewable energy production on federal lands and waters.

From inside a newly created White House Climate Policy Office, national climate adviser Gina McCarthy branded the administration’s climate agenda as a form of economic stimulus that would create millions of jobs building solar farms, wind turbines and battery storage. Even as the administration’s climate policies stalled in Congress and were threatened by the Supreme Court, Biden continued to make it a centerpiece of his agenda.

This week, the Biden administration said it will spend $6 billion to keep threatened nuclear power plants open, since they provide energy without contributing to climate change.

But this year’s abruptly rising gas prices posed a political risk to the president and vulnerable Democrats, prompting the administration to shift to a more nuanced message that calls for an immediate increase in fossil fuel production coupled with long-term investments in cleaner energy sources.

Acknowledging the political peril, climate advocates mostly refrained from criticizing Biden’s decision to release 1 million barrels a day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — nor did they leap on last week’s suspension of federal rules that restrict ethanol in gasoline. But when the Interior Department announced Friday that it would open more public land to drilling, many activists responded with surprise and dismay.

Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands protection program, said that until that moment, advocates felt confident the administration had no plans to allow new drilling. Although environmental groups were pleased with Interior’s decision to raise the royalty rate — increasing it to 18.75 percent from 12.5 percent — the notion that roughly 144,000 acres would now be available for lease shocked them.

“The campaign promise they made is really important; we have to keep this oil in the ground if we’re serious about meeting these climate goals,” Manuel said. “We’re going to hold them to that, whether it’s through political pressure or in the courts.”

Among many of the young climate activists who campaigned for the president and helped shape his climate agenda, the sense of disappointment is deeply felt.

“Biden’s status as a climate president hangs in the balance right now with how he handles this emergency,” said John Paul Mejia, national spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental group.

Mejia said the group celebrated Biden’s early executive actions on climate and his pledge to ban new drilling but found his recent moves alarming.

“While a lot of people think of these decisions on a two- or four-year election time frame, we also have to consider the repercussions for my entire generation and what we will have to grow up with,” Mejia said.

Biden declared in no uncertain terms during the campaign that he was committed to halting the leasing of new federal land.

“No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period,” he said during a February 2020 campaign event in New Hampshire.

Days after entering office, Biden did in fact sign an executive order that paused the sale of new oil and gas leases on federal land. But a federal judge overturned the order, and while the Biden administration is appealing that decision, officials say that for now they have no choice but to allow the leases.

“We are going to continue to fight this court injunction, which is forcing our hand,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

Some environmentalists challenge that legal interpretation, saying the administration could have postponed the lease sales while it corrected flaws in the environmental analysis supporting them. Others have criticized the size of the upcoming sale, saying the decision to lease nearly 135,000 acres in Wyoming alone is out of step with the administration’s professed climate goals.

White House officials say little about their policies is changing, even if their emphasis alters to address the war in Ukraine.

“If anything, what this moment has reminded us is the import and the salience of boosting our own economic capacity to provide in the United States, and in export markets around the world, the clean energy technologies that are going to end our dependence on fossil fuels that are traded on a volatile market and vulnerable to manipulation by petrol states and bad actors,” Zaidi said.

Gross noted that the administration is continuing to promote electric vehicles and encouraging a more robust hydrogen energy industry.

“The things that make a difference over the long term,” she said, “are still happening.”