Pandemic fatigue and oil market to blame for gas prices, not just Biden

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Rising gasoline prices are becoming ever more apparent throughout the United States, with the national average inflating by nearly $1.50 over the past year (American Automobile Association, 2021). Fearing an even more elevated cost of living, Americans have taken to social media platforms to denounce President Joe Biden for the inflation. For example, an Instagram post from FreedomWorks on June 1, 2021 displays a graphic that shows the rise in gas prices from five months prior titled “Joe Biden’s America.” Moreover, one meme from May 22, 2021 shared to Facebook by Max Morell claims, “Man, I haven’t seen gas prices this high since the last [time] a Democrat was in office.” Blaming Biden for this uptick is not a new trend; multiple accusations by conservatives continue to be made (The Palm Beach Post, 2021), with many asserting that the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline was a primary contributor. While it is true that gasoline prices have risen dramatically during Biden’s tenure, the upward trend predates his presidency and relates to both the COVID-19 pandemic and market factors, both of which are not under the president’s complete control.

The most important factor in the inflation of gas prices is crude oil, from which gasoline is produced. American Automobile Association spokesperson Jeanette McGee said to USA Today reporter Miriam Fauzia that this particular fossil fuel usually accounts for 50 to 60 percent of the price at the pump. In addition, she stated that crude oil prices became so incredibly cheap during the pandemic that brokers traded them at negative prices (USA Today, 2021). Take Brent crude oil, for example. A blend that supplies most of the European continent, Brent was sold at nine bucks a barrel in 2020, its lowest price in decades (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2021). In response to low demand following pandemic lockdown restrictions, major oil-producing countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia reduced their oil production. However, this degree of reduction left countries unprepared to meet the astronomical increase in demand for crude oil once restrictions loosened. Fortunately, these high prices may not last much longer; according to Energy Information Administration (EIA) spokesperson Chris Higginbotham, the EIA predicts that oil producers will gradually increase their production throughout 2022, which forecasts lower crude oil and gasoline prices (USA Today, 2021). 

Although presidential policies can impact crude oil, they do not have as much influence over gasoline prices as many Americans seem to believe. In the same USA Today interview, McGee said, “[I]f you go back and look at historical data, whether it was Bush, Obama, Trump or Biden, [gas prices] go up and down no matter who’s in office.” During former President Donald Trump’s term, the average price for gasoline rose to nearly $3 a gallon from late spring to mid-autumn 2018; in May 2019, prices rose to $3 once again before dropping below $2 a gallon after pandemic restrictions began in March 2020 (American Automobile Association). Eased restrictions, reduced crude oil supply and the approach of summer––considered peak-travel season––would inevitably bring a price increase, but the increase arrived sooner as a result of the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, a major fuel provider for the Eastern Seaboard, in May 2021 (The New York Times, 2021).

Many of Biden’s critics point to his cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline as the source of increased gas prices, but experts say that no such connection exists (Forbes, 2021). First proposed in 2008 by Canadian company TC Energy, President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline in Nov. 2015, but President Donald Trump approved it in March 2017 (USA Today, 2017). Following his inauguration, President Biden suspended the project and TC Energy announced the pipeline’s termination a few months later (The Associated Press, 2021). Even if the project were to continue, it would not be transferring oil between the two countries while under construction and not have an effect on current gas prices. Executive Director of Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies David Dismukes said, “[Offshore] drilling, drilling on federal lands, the outlook for fossil fuel energies in general, those are impacting the price and expectation of crude oil…but that’s not what you’re seeing at the pump right now” (USA Today, 2021).

Basic principles of macroeconomics and external circumstances indicate that President Joe Biden is not solely to blame for the current increase in gas prices. Sure, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline and offshore drilling will certainly have long-term effects, like a gradual reduction in domestic supply and slightly increased unemployment, but it currently has no impact on the pump prices whatsoever. Moreover, inflation has occurred at various points in recent history, regardless of who occupies the White House. Reduced demand for gasoline during the pandemic has forced oil companies to cut back on their production of crude oil. An increase in travelling along with a lagging supply has also led to high prices, not the president or his policies. Although Americans are concerned about an expensive cost of living, major oil producing countries are expected to gradually increase production throughout the next year, meaning that prices, and eventually cost of living, will decrease sooner than originally expected.

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