Environmental science

Biden Wants Cheap Gas. But Not Too Cheap.

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If you drive along the Gulf of Mexico from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, you will pass four US government sites that look like nothing special—a bland patch of concrete, a few office buildings, some oil silos huddled together. These facilities conceal something extraordinary: a network of cathedral-esque caverns carved into underground rock salt that can collectively hold more than 700 million barrels of oil. Together, these caverns, which are wide and deep enough to swallow the Empire State Building, make up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a marvel of American engineering and the largest emergency stockpile of crude oil anywhere in the world.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or SPR, is one of those pieces of infrastructure that nobody needs to think about in ordinary times. And for the most part, nobody has. Created after the 1973 oil embargo, the reserve has become a kind of all-purpose cushion for oil supplies in times of war or natural disaster. But in recent months, it has become a lifeline for President Joe Biden. Since April, the government has sold about 1 million barrels a day from the reserve to private oil companies. It is the largest and fastest release of SPR supplies ever, an emergency release that Biden says is justified by “Putin’s price hike at the pump.” Along with recession fears and China’s ongoing lockdowns, the release has helped lower oil and gasoline prices since they peaked earlier this year.

But the reserve might soon play a more prominent role for the Biden administration and the American public than it does right now. Yesterday, the White House announced that it would rewrite the rules governing the reserve so that it can buy a barrel of oil without actually getting it delivered for months, essentially providing domestic oil drillers with a form of insurance and placing a partial floor under oil prices . Advocates of the policy say that it may allow the government to stabilize energy markets, lower gas prices—and maybe even help the climate along the way.

Let’s back up. After entering the White House with dreams of becoming the next FDR, Biden’s many plans have been tripped up by, well, just about everything—inflation, the war in Ukraine, Senator Joe Manchin, and his own mistakes. His approval ratings are so low as to be lodged in a subterranean salt cavern of their own. Democrats are heading for a disaster in this year’s midterm elections, and some people in his party have contemplated replacing Biden on his 2024 ticket, when he will be 81.

Part of Biden’s struggle is that his desires seem to be directly at odds with one another. His biggest priority is to slow down the scorching inflation that is driven in part by high energy prices, especially oil prices, that have risen largely because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Lowering global oil prices almost inevitably means encouraging more US oil drilling, to fill the gap left by Russia and decrease global oil prices.

Yet Biden doesn’t want to burn more fossil fuels. During the 2020 campaign, Biden said that climate change was one of the four major crises facing the country. One of his first acts as president was to block the Keystone XL pipeline and hit pause on new permits for oil drilling on public lands. Especially now that the Senate has given up on his climate bill, Biden is under pressure to make good on his climate rhetoric and reduce emissions.

The White House’s latest move seems to be broadly following a plan released by the liberal think tank Employ America. Over the past few months, the group has been making a claim that may sound too good to be true: He can fight climate change and lower gas prices at the same time. By using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a swing buyer and seller of oil, he can put a de facto floor and ceiling on oil prices, the group claims. Thus Biden can slow the rise of gas prices and ward off recession, while also helping to avoid a total collapse in oil prices such that people do not feel a need to buy electric vehicles or avoid unnecessary travel.

In essence, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve’s ability to hold enormous amounts of oil for long periods of time—a very specific task that the government knows how to do well—can be harnessed for the greater good. It allows the government to intervene in the oil market when the price of oil falls too low or too high, buying or selling oil to keep the price in a certain window, then holding that oil until the price changes. The newly proposed rule changes will make that kind of intervention possible.

At the root of his proposal is an alluring idea: There is a “Goldilocks zone” for oil prices. When oil gets expensive, it can stifle the economy and start a vicious cycle of inflation. When oil gets cheap, it can cause damage to the climate: It can slow down the energy transition, encourage wasteful car purchases, and broadly increase emissions. But, crucially, cheap oil is also bad for oil companies, because it does not provide them with enough revenue to pay off their debts or invest in new drilling. Although pushing the fossil-fuel industry into insolvency might sound attractive to many progressive politicians in the short term, it can come back to bite them—as Biden is seeing now. That’s because when oil prices collapsed during the pandemic, companies closed down refining capacity and stopped drilling for more oil, partly setting up the current cycle of price hikes.

In a memo that Employ America circulated last week, the think tank proposes that the Biden administration rewrite the rules that the Department of Energy uses to purchase oil for the reserve. (It wasn’t the first group to propose a rethink of the SPR: Researchers at Columbia University did the same in 2018.) This could allow the government to function as a de facto swing supplier, buying more oil when demand is weak and selling it when demand is strong. That could add as much as 1.8 million barrels a day, claims Skanda Amarnath, Employ America’s executive director. If true, that would exceed OPEC Plus’ own ability to swing production prices.

The first tool that Employ America suggests is functionally the same as what the White House just announced that it will do: allow the government to buy oil at a market price without immediately taking delivery of that oil. (Instead of using fixed-price forward contracts, Employ America proposed that the government should write a type of contract called a put option that allows, but does not obligate, oil companies to sell their oil. But that is a minor difference.)

The second tool—which the Biden administration has not yet adopted—is auctioning off contracts to oil producers through a type of auction called a Dutch auction. Through such a procedure, Employ America hopes that the reserve can account for more than the price of a marginal barrel: It could write options for companies that would be able to drill the most additional barrels, for instance, or for companies that could use high environmental standards to drill. In that way, the government might even use its power as a buyer of first resort to encourage oil companies to reduce their methane leaks or wasteful flaring.

Here’s the rub: Yes, replenishing the SPR does help the fossil-fuel industry, at least in the short term. Although the White House’s plan will provide more price certainty for consumers, it does so via a subsidy for fossil-fuel producers, Mark Paul, an economics and environmental studies professor at the New College of Florida, told me. That means it will “increase extraction, which will increase greenhouse-gas emissions.”

It will also underwrite the creation of fossil-fuel infrastructure that will last for decades to come. “Once additional resources are developed for extraction, it’s not like they’re going to be wound down over two years,” Paul said. “It’s a policy to increase extraction when all the data show us we can’t extract even the oil reserves we already have.”

The plans’ advocates respond that gas prices are a first-order political crisis for Biden: If Democrats can’t lower them, then they will lose in 2022 and Biden will lose in 2024, putting the White House—and the power to regulate carbon from any sector of the economy—out of reach for years. By keeping gas prices in this “Goldilocks zone,” Biden might be able to help keep consumers happy without also making gas so cheap that would-be EV buyers are instead opting for SUVs. And Paul agreed that there are better and worse ways to encourage extraction: If most of the surge in drilling comes from shale wells, which produce most of their oil in the first 18 months, then Biden can avoid significant carbon lock-in, he said . “But that’s not the way [the White House announcement] is written,” he said. “Producers will get to make that decision.”

The Biden administration has not yet said what price it will seek as a floor for oil. After asking around among experts, I’ve heard suggestions anywhere from $70 to just below $100 a barrel for the “ideal” price of oil at this moment—enough to unlock production but still encourage continued decarbonization.

But Biden may not need such a complicated proposal to do the same amount of good, Ben Cahill, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. Although he had not analyzed the specifics of Employ America’s proposal, he worried that such an intricate plan to intervene in the oil industry or refinery system would create opportunities for canny investors to exploit. “We should be skeptical of new initiatives that could just support refiner or trader profits,” he said. “I tend to think the market is pretty clever.”

But Cahill still agreed that it’s time to get more creative about using the SPR. “The world has changed since the SPR was created. It was designed to protect the US from a dramatic cutoff of imports,” Cahill told me, but that risk is much less likely now than it was in the 1970s. More recently, it’s often used to cushion oil prices after a major natural disaster—usually a hurricane—takes out production capacity. “But the idea that we’re going to have a series of natural disasters so big that they deplete the SPR is just fanciful,” he said.

If this approach works, then eventually, the government could expand its energy stockpiles beyond petroleum and other fossil fuels. It could open a lithium, cobalt, or graphite reserve, which are essential to the energy transition and much simpler to store than oil. (You need a warehouse, not a salt cavern.) It’s unclear whether the White House could open a strategic reserve for these inputs without further approval from Congress.

One of the main lessons of the pandemic is that during an emergency, the government can best flex its muscles where it already has expertise and capacity. In March 2020, the government quickly sent checks to most Americans—it does a version of that with most people’s tax returns, after all. But it struggled to lend money to small businesses as effectively and fairly. The government had the infrastructure and state capacity to buttress sending checks, but not keeping small firms solvent.

The good thing about the SPR plan is that the government already has this capacity: It knows how to store, sell, and buy up oil. Biden’s political future just might hinge on whether he can use that power more creatively.

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