Long used to cheap gas at the pump, Americans are experiencing serious sticker shock these days.
News headlines link this sharp increase to Russia’s war on Ukraine. But that assumes oil companies have no control over the price of oil — that high prices stem “naturally” from things like the war in Ukraine, or the U.S. decision to halt oil and gas imports from Russia.
Collin Rees, senior campaigner with Oil Change International, told me in a recent interview that there is “a complex interplay” of forces that determine prices. Supply is only part of it.
“The U.S. doesn’t actually import that much Russian oil and gas,” he said — only about 8 percent of our imports, or a paltry 2 percent of our overall use. If the war’s had any effect, he explained, it’s “increased fear among investors.”
In other words, the price hike isn’t about supply — it’s about investors fearing they’ll lose out on profits.
For Americans struggling to make sense of what they’re seeing at the pump, prices actually began rising in 2021 as quarantines eased and Americans resumed commuting and travel. Gas prices rose by over $1 a gallon last year, reaching their highest nominal price since 2014.
Oil prices and gas prices aren’t always directly correlated. Oil prices have actually dropped since peaking after Russia’s invasion, but gas prices remain very high in most of the country.
Still, the fossil fuel industry is using the latest price spike to make the case for more oil and gas drilling — and they have prominent supporters. “In this moment of crisis, we need more supply,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said recently.
Yet only a few months ago, Granholm admitted that “the energy industry is making enormous profits. They’re back up… above where they were before the pandemic started.” Rees concurs, saying the industry is making “obscene amounts of money.”
Instead of lowering gas prices with this windfall, oil companies “are buying back their own shares, funneling dividends to their shareholders, and paying lobbyists to demand cheap new federal leases so they can stockpile them for future profit,” the organization Earthjustice reports.
Doing more favors for this industry won’t make life easier for consumers. It simply makes them more vulnerable to future price hikes — while polluting our planet and complicating international diplomacy efforts with oil politics when lives are at stake.
Instead, the Biden administration should follow its own promise to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.
Even by the logic of capitalism, that’s the financially sensible thing to do. “Scientists and engineers have dropped the cost of solar and wind power by an order of magnitude,” notes 350.org founder Bill McKibben, “to the point where it is some of the cheapest power on Earth.”
Just as the fossil fuel industry and its political allies are using Russia’s war on Ukraine and high gas prices to justify increased dependence on oil, now is the time for advocates of sanity and safety to use this moment to pivot away from petroleum as fast as possible.
“It’s more critical than ever in these moments to recognize that this is a chance to free ourselves from that dependency,” Rees concludes. It’s an opportunity to end “that cycle of conflict and fossil-fueled harm and pain and death, and to build a better world.”