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Is Biden To Blame For Soaring Gasoline Prices?

  • There is a strong correlation between gas prices and the approval rating of any U.S. president, but there is only so much a president can do to control those prices.
  • In the case of Biden, there is one decision that stands out when it comes to gas prices climbing recently - the decision to ban Russian oil imports.
  • The two most influential factors when it comes to high gas prices today are supply issues due to covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

One year ago this week I wrote an article that turned out to be my most popular Forbes article ever: Who Is To Blame For Rising Gasoline Prices? The article got more than a million views, and spawned a large amount of feedback.

A year later, the same dynamic I wrote about then is still responsible for most — but not all — of the gasoline price increase we have seen over the past 18 months.

The Covid Effect

To recap, just before the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. oil production hit an all-time high of about 13 million barrels per day (BPD). As the pandemic unfolded, demand for oil collapsed, and production followed. By May 2020, oil production had dropped by more than 3 million BPD to 9.7 million BPD.

When the pandemic crushed oil demand in 2020, some oil companies went out of business. Some small stripper wells — which account for a respectable amount of U.S. oil production — were permanently capped because of the bleak outlook. Some workers left the oil industry. As people went back to work, demand began to bounce back, but production lagged due to the aforementioned issues.

Following the production collapse of 2020, the U.S. has been playing catch up as demand recovered. Rising oil prices — in response to insufficient supplies — are the predominant reason for the surge in gasoline prices.

In the last three months of the Trump Administration, oil prices rose by 32% as demand bounced back. From a monthly average of $39.40/bbl in October 2020 (EIA), the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) averaged $52.00/bbl in January 2021 — Trump’s last month in office.

In the first three months of the Biden Administration, the average monthly price of WTI rose by another 19% to $61.72/bbl. In the three months after that, prices rose another 17% to $72.49/bbl. Prices then bounced between $70/bbl and $80/bbl until January 2022. More on that below.

Many people attributed the entire price rise to President Biden but, in reality, it began before Biden took office. Further, it was neither primarily President Trump’s nor President Biden’s fault — and these price surges were taking place all over the world.

To be clear, the stimulus money that both presidents approved had some impact. When people have more money, they spend it. Demand for goods rises, driving inflation. Stimulus money played a minor part in the gasoline price rise, but it was primarily a function of the oil price surge due to the imbalance brought on in the aftermath of the Covid-19 demand plunge.

The most recent data available from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows current U.S. oil production at ~11.6 million BPD, which is still 1.4 million BPD short of pre-pandemic production. Supply is going to lag demand for a bit longer, and that’s going to keep upward pressure on gasoline prices.

The Putin Effect

But now let’s discuss something that President Biden did impact. I often point out that a President has few handles for impacting gasoline prices in the short term. Those handles are primarily 1). Releases of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; 2). Changing the gasoline tax; or 3). Involvement in a war with a major oil producer. All of these things can have a rapid impact on gasoline prices.

When it looked like Russia was massing troops on Ukraine’s border, oil prices broke out above the 2021 range. In January 2022, the average price of WTI moved up to $83.22/bbl. In February, when Russia actually invaded Ukraine, the average price jumped to $91.64/bbl. I attribute this price rise primarily to Vladimir Putin, combined with the world’s response to the invasion.

However, there is one action that President Biden does bear responsibility for. Biden’s decision to stop importing Russian oil was the trigger for oil prices surging above $120/bbl. They have retreated from that level for now, but the inefficiencies involved in rerouting Russian imports and backfilling that oil will keep a premium on prices.

I am not making any judgments here on whether it was the right or wrong decision. And I agree that Biden made the decision in response to Russia’s actions against Ukraine.

You may believe that banning Russian oil was the right move, but it does impact gasoline prices. It is arguably the first decision President Biden has made that had an immediate, short-term impact.

I say “arguably” because Biden has authorized some releases of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and they may have had an impact. However, if they did it was fleeting, and only provided a small, temporary supply bump in a market that is significantly undersupplied.

Many people believe that the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline by President Biden has impacted gasoline prices. But that’s a potential long-term impact. The Keystone XL decision doesn’t impact prices today, but its absence may very well result in higher prices in the future. Biden’s decision to ban Russian oil, on the other hand, has an immediate impact on prices.

By Robert Rapier for Oilprice.com

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  • DoRight Deikins on March 21 2022 said:
    News has a considerable and measurable impact on prices, more so perhaps than actual events. I can guarantee that if Pres. Biden declared that he is allowing the Keystone pipeline to proceed (and rescinding other constraints to production of oil) that prices would drop quickly, much quicker and much longer lasting than a short term, insignificant withdrawal from the Strategic stockpiles.

    This would be similar to the effect that news about permitting (and then not permitting) off-shore drilling had.
  • DoRight Deikins on March 21 2022 said:
    News has a considerable and measurable impact on prices, more so perhaps than actual events. I can guarantee that if Pres. Biden declared that he is allowing the Keystone pipeline to proceed (and rescinding other constraints to production of oil) that prices would drop quickly, much quicker and much longer lasting than a short term, insignificant withdrawal from the Strategic stockpiles.

    This would be similar to the effect that news about permitting (and then not permitting) off-shore drilling had.

    I would attribute the rise in price during ex-Pres. Trump's last days in office to the balancing of the increase of demand during the last days of 2020. Plus with the news of the election of an acknowledged anti-fossil fuel president, the rise in prices didn't need for Pres. Biden to take office. The news of his election was sufficient.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on March 21 2022 said:
    Gasoline prices in the United States have been soaring long before the Ukraine conflict came on the scene. The reasons are the most bullish global oil market since 2014, a robust global oil demand, underinvestment in oil and gas since 2019 and a tight market.

    President Biden wasn’t responsible for the fundamentals of the market. Moreover, his decision to release some 50 million barrels from the United States SPR was virtually ignored by the market. I don’t know if changing the gasoline tax would have had much effect given the robustness of global oil demand.

    The third alternative of getting involved in a war with a major oil producer wouldn’t have helped either. To support my view, I am going to tell a story involving the late Saudi King Faisal who led the embargo on the United States during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and Henry Kissinger who was then the US Secretary of State.

    When oil was cut off from the United States, Henry Kissinger told King Faisal "If Saudi Arabia does not lift the boycott, America will come and bomb the oilfields." King Faisal replied back "You are the ones who can't live without oil. You know, we come from the desert, and our ancestors lived on dates and milk and we can easily go back and live like that again.

    However, President Biden’s decision to ban imports of Russian crude estimated at 600,000-700,000 barrels a day (b/d) was in my opinion an ill thought one. It triggered a surge of Brent crude to $120 a barrel thus harming the global economy particularly the United States’ without harming Russia’ economy at all. Moreover, the United States is yet to find a replacement.

    The US is the world’s second largest importer of crude oil after China importing 9.0 million barrels a day (mbd). It is more vulnerable to oil price shocks than other major economies.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Peter B on March 21 2022 said:
    By the midterms Ukraine will probably be less in the news but the high cost for gasoline will be in voters faces advertised in big bold numbers at every one of the more than 150,000 gas stations in the USA. If that were not enough you can bet that GOP candidates will talk a lot about the price of gasoline.

    Also we will probably be in the middle of a global food crisis caused by the loss of Russian and Ukraine grain and sunflower oil exports which could lead to war and revolutions in poor countries.

    It is a great time to be a Republican candidate! Not so great for everyone else.

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