Panic over spike in energy prices reveals how unprepared Americans are for a gasless future

A ban on Russian energy imports is raising gas prices akin to how a carbon tax might. Consumers aren't happy

Published March 9, 2022 6:16PM (EST)

SunCor Energy Refinery in Denver, Colorado. (RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SunCor Energy Refinery in Denver, Colorado. (RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, President Biden announced a new ban on Russian energy imports, attempting to put more pressure on Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine. Though the US only imports about 8% of its energy from Russia, the aftermath of the ban is being felt already by consumers. Gasoline prices hit an all time high, reaching an average of $4.173 for a single gallon Tuesday. Prices continue to climb to new heights, reaching $4.252 today. Diesel followed suit with a record-breaking $4.883 per gallon. While the price rise of fossil fuels was already happening prior to the invasion of Ukraine — a result of long-simmering supply chain issues stemming from the pandemic — geopolitical tensions and Biden's ban seem to have accelerated the trend.

Curiously, the spike in energy prices might briefly reduce carbon emissions in the United States. Indeed, analysts agree that a market-based solution to climate change, such as carbon taxes, would not look all that different than the current situation with energy prices. Such a strategy would artificially increase prices of fossil fuels to encourage the use of high-efficiency and electric vehicles. In other words, the current energy price spike mirrors a policy scenario that may come to pass regardless as one of the necessities of stopping climate change. Despite the current furor over gasoline prices, the Pew Research Center previously found that more than two-thirds of Americans support a carbon tax, although on corporations rather than consumers.

Yet consumer shock over shouldering the sudden burden of rising gas prices indicates just how unprepared the country is to transition away from fossil fuels without intervention. Non-renewables have not been able to grant energy independence since the early days of oil production. Renewables could, and rising gas prices might just be the catalyst we need to get there.

Some conservatives are eager to place blame on the Biden administration's fairly market-friendly climate policies, indicating that increasing drilling on public lands and resuming construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would provide a solution to high prices on oil. Yet energy expert Michael Klare said this "drill, baby, drill" mentality misses the mark.

"There's no place on the planet where you can stick a drill in the earth and oil comes out tomorrow," Klare told Rolling Stone. "That's a delusion to think that. What we're talking about is invading environmentally sensitive areas with costly technology and no guarantee you'll get oil five years from now. By then the climate will be significantly threatening to our survival."

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Moreover, the United States is neither more dependent on foreign oil under the Biden administration than it has been in recent history nor would a transition to renewables make it so — quite the opposite. 

"To prevent this from being a challenge in future crises, the best thing we can do is reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil because that will help us have a reliable source of energy so that we're not worried about gas prices going up because of the whims of a foreign dictator," commented White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki in a press conference.

Unlike member states of the European Union, which relies heavily on Russia for roughly 45% of all energy imports, as a net-exporting state for the first time since the mid-20th century, the United States has the ability to cut off Russian energy imports entirely.

"We're moving forward on this ban, understanding that many of our European Allies and partners may not be in a position to join us," President Biden remarked. "The United States produces far more oil domestically than all the European countries combined. In fact, we're a net exporter of energy. So we can take this step when others cannot."

Following suit, a plan in the EU, called REPowerEU, incorporates a transition in large part to renewables in order establish independence from Russian energy by 2030.

"It's hard, bloody hard," said EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans. "But it's possible if we're willing to go further and faster than we've done before."

RELATED: How climate-monitoring satellites are exposing Russian military movements

While the US sanctions will immediately level a blow to the Russian economy, they are not designed to make a strong pivot on renewable energy, despite the opportunity.

"The United States is targeting the main artery of Russia's economy," President Biden announced. "We're banning all imports of Russian oil and gas and energy. That means Russian oil will no longer be acceptable at U.S. ports, and the American people will deal another powerful blow to Putin's war machine. This is a move that has strong bipartisan support in the Congress and, I believe, in the country."

Americans felt the shock at the pump well before the ban, and still an overwhelming 79% now support it, according to a poll from the Wall Street Journal. Average prices soared to more than $4 for a gallon across the US earlier this week, while crude oil nearly topped $120 per barrel. Anticipation prompted the surge, said Psaki, but that is a result of global markets, not a lack of domestic oil production. 

"We are one of the largest producers with a strong domestic oil and gas industry," Psaki explained. "We have actually produced more oil; it is at record numbers. And we will continue to produce more oil. There are 9,000 approved drilling permits that are not being used. So the suggestion that we are not allowing companies to drill is inaccurate. The suggestion that that is what is hindering or preventing gas prices to come down is inaccurate."

In 2020, Russian oil made up roughly 7% of all US oil imports. That number rose to just under 8% during President Biden's first year in office. The last two years of Trump's presidency saw slightly higher increases in the percentage of oil imports from Russia but marginally so.

In fact, production is higher now than when former President Donald Trump left office, while data from the US Energy Information Administration show imports relative to domestic oil consumption hit a 34-year-low of 42.81% last year.

Despite the false narrative right-wing media outlets continue to push about oil independence, US oil production has not decreased under the Biden administration nor has importation significantly increased as a result.

"To be very clear, federal policies are not limiting the supplies of oil and gas," Psaki started in response to a question regarding increasing domestic drilling from Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy.

Interrupting her, Doocy suggested that an executive order from President Biden's first week in office halting new oil and gas leases on public lands was to blame. 

"Let me give you the facts here — and I know that can be inconvenient, but I think they're important in this moment," Psaki quipped. "To the contrary, we have been clear that in the short term, supply must keep up with the demand here and around the world, while we make the shift to secure a clear — clean energy future."

High prices alone might not be enough to alter consumer behavior permanently. Markedly reduced demand during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic led to an 11% decrease in domestic US oil consumption from 2019 to 2020, but there was not a permanent behavior change. Though oil consumption has since recovered, the willingness of the United States to cut off Russian oil and suffer the consequences lends a promising outlook on climate action, particularly as the new IPCC report demonstrates how impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent.

Read more on the situation in Ukraine: 

By Eric Schank

Eric Schank is a fellow at Salon writing for science and health. He holds a BA in environmental studies from Oberlin College.

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