Desperate to find a way to halt their slide in the polls, Republicans have tried to blame President Obama for rising gas prices, claiming that he has somehow failed to make the US energy independent. Entirely on cue, much of the mainstream media has echoed this attack, giving wall-to-wall coverage of high gas prices and GOP claims about it. But the attack is entirely off-base, as rising gas prices are caused primarily by increasing demand overseas, and the long-term solutions – increased fuel efficiency and development of alternative fuels – are being promoted by President Obama and fought by the very same Republicans who are trying to make a political issue out of gas prices.
There is no dispute that gas prices have been going up, though they remain below the high reached in mid-2008 and they were kept unnaturally low in late 2008 and 2009 due to the Bush Recession. But Republican claims about energy independence, the purported need to “drill, baby, drill,” and the alleged refusal of the Obama Administration to allow energy development are simply false. In reality, US oil production is at an eight year high, to the chagrin of many environmentalists (including Winning Progressive) the number of oil rigs in operation have skyrocketed, the U.S. was a net oil product exporter in 2011 for the first time since 1949, and as the image above shows, U.S. dependence on foreign oil has declined every year since President Obama took office.
The reality of the situation is that oil and gas prices are set by a global market that is largely beyond the reach of any U.S. President. For example, the biggest cause of the increase in gas prices is skyrocketing demand for gas and oil in China, India, and other rapidly developing nations which are pushing up prices globally. Second, supply disruptions in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and the North Sea has at least temporarily reduced global supply. Third, concerns about a possible military conflict with Iran (which many conservatives are actively cheerleading) has created an opening for financial speculators to drive oil prices up even more.
Contrary to the Republicans’ caterwauling, there is little that President Obama, or any other political leader, can do to force gas prices to decline. Instead, there are two things that need to be done to address rising gas prices. The first is to reduce income inequality in the US, in order to alleviate the impact that rising gas prices have on working class and poor Americans. On that front, President Obama has been actively fighting for a fairer tax and economic system, while the GOP has focused almost entirely on trying to reduce taxes for the wealthiest 1%. In light of this record, the GOP’s claims to care about the impact of gas prices on consumers rings hollow.
Second, we have to find ways to reduce and eventually end our dependence on oil from any source over the long-term so that Americans need to purchase less gas. And on that front, President Obama, while far from perfect, has shown leadership often in the face of pathological intransigence from the GOP.
Most importantly, the Obama Administration has significantly increased vehicle efficiency in order to reduce the amount of gas Americans need to purchase. In April 2010, the Administration finalized a regulation increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (“CAFE”) standards for cars to 35.5 miles per gallon (“mpg”) by 2016. Last year, the Obama Administration reached an agreement with the auto industry to increase average fuel economy for cars and light-duty trucks to 54.5mpg by 2025. Such standard will save $1.7 trillion in fuel costs for American consumers and reduce oil usage by 2.2 million barrels per day.
Second, as Josh Marks explained a couple of days ago, President Obama has been actively investing in developing alternative fuels, such as algae-based biofuels that could replace up to 17% of our nation’s oil imports. Republicans are, predictably, mocking the algae research, even though they previously requested federal support for such research.
Third, President Obama has sought to end the more than $4 billion of taxpayer subsidies that the oil industry receives every year. In a speech yesterday in New Hampshire, the President explained how those subsidies give the oil industry an unfair economic advantage over cleaner fuel sources, and could be used to, among other things, help finance the transition to cleaner fuels. To date, Republicans have refused to heed Obama’s call on ending oil industry subsidies, so the President is turning up the pressure by urging his supporters to call their Congresspeople and Senators and demand that they vote to end the subsidies.
From a progressive perspective, President Obama has been far from perfect on the issue of gas prices and clean energy. For example, he has yet to follow through on his call during the 2008 election campaign for a windfall profits tax on oil companies that could be used to reduce the impact of high gas prices on lower-income Americans. In addition, President Obama’s framing of his energy policy as an “all-of-the-above” strategy could improperly suggest that fossil fuels (including coal) are a key part of the long-term energy solution. In fact, while we will need natural gas and oil for the foreseeable future, we should be promoting cleaner fuels and efficiency as rapidly as possible.
But these concerns should not distract us from the fact that the Obama Administration is not to blame for rising gas prices, the Administration is making significant progress is advancing fuel efficiency, alternatives fuels, and other long-term solutions to rising energy prices, and President Obama rightly rejects the GOP’s fallacious “drill, baby, drill” approach.
Unfortunately, the GOP is trying to ride the gas price issue back to political relevance. It is up to us to make sure they do not succeed. Two ways you can help are by writing a letter to your local newspaper editor explaining how rising gas prices will require long-term solutions that President Obama is pursuing, and by calling your Congressperson and Senators to urge them to vote to end the more than $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies that the oil industry receives every year.