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Climate and Environment

Biden's Gas Strategy Could Hurt Clean Energy Transition And The Climate

An illuminated sign advertises three prices for different grades of self-service gasoline -- six dollars and 21 and nine-tenths cents for regular, six dollars and 23 and nine-tenths cents for plus, and six dollars and twenty-five and nine-tenths cents for supreme.
Gas prices hit over $6 per gallon at a station in L.A. on February 23, 2022.
(Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images)
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The White House approved recently the biggest oil release in history from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an emergency stockpile of oil overseen by the Department of Energy. The administration also celebrated oil companies that are ramping up production. That has some climate scientists worried.

It’s all part of the Biden administration’s effort to curb skyrocketing gas prices. Russia is the third-largest producer of natural gas globally, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, so the invasion of Ukraine along with inflation has hiked prices around the globe. We all feel it here in L.A., where prices are averaging a whopping $6 a gallon.

In an effort to get those prices down, the Biden administration announced last week that they will put one million additional barrels on the market per day from the oil reserve for the next six months. The release will serve as a “bridge until the end of the year when domestic [oil] production ramps up,” according to the administration.

“The fact is that there is nothing standing in the way of domestic oil production,” a White House statement reads. “The United States is already approaching record levels of oil and natural gas production. There are oil companies that are doing the right thing and committing to ramp up production now.”

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But Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist with UCLA’s Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science & Engineering, said we should be doubling down on clean energy, not fossil fuels. His concerns led him and three other scientists to chain themselves to the entrance of a downtown L.A. Chase bank on Wednesday in protest of JP Morgan Chase's investments in new fossil fuel projects. The four scientists were arrested for misdemeanor trespassing.

Kalmus said there are now many more options on energy alternatives than there were the last time an oil crisis and inflation hit so hard at the same time. “The last time this really happened in the 1970s, there wasn't really another option,” Kalmus said. “And now there is, which is renewable energy.”

Kalmus said President Joe Biden could use executive orders to rapidly increase investments in renewable energy and provide tax credits and other support for households that are most impacted by gas price hikes.

Congress is currently considering a federal gasoline stimulus payment of $100 per month per person. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to send California drivers as much as $800 each and encourage public transit systems to offer free rides.

In the same announcement about the oil release, Biden called again on Congress to pass his plan to move the country away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy. He also issued a directive to ramp up domestic mining for the minerals needed to build batteries for electric cars and clean energy storage.

The new directive adds minerals such as lithium and cobalt to the 1950 Defense Production Act. It gives the president emergency authority to rapidly expand supply of materials deemed necessary for national defense and has been invoked several times since, including during the Cold War.

Biden also invoked it to get more water hoses to firefighters during last year’s unprecedented wildfires, which are increasingly being linked to human-caused climate change.

Biden banned Russian imports of oil last month, saying the country’s invasion of Ukraine was “a stark reminder that to protect our economy over the long term, we need to become energy independent. It should motivate us to accelerate a transition to clean energy.”

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But the president also plans to continue oil drilling on federal lands. Local refineries have been increasing production as well.

'I Don't Want To See This Moment Squandered'

The recent rhetoric on oil has Kalmus and other climate scientists worried Biden won’t stick to his promises, especially as Republicans are expected to take control of at least the House in November.

“I don't want to see this moment squandered, and I'm getting really loud signals from the White House that makes me think it is being squandered,” Kalmus said.

Kalmus was among more than 200 other scientists who sent a letter to the president on Thursday asking him to use his executive authority to invest in renewables instead of fossil fuels.

“Allowing more drilling and fracking, approving more pipelines, and expanding export facilities not only fail to address short term energy needs, they lock us into decades of reliance on fossil fuels and ensure runaway climate chaos for the long,” the letter states. “President Biden, you ran for office promising to listen to science. As scientists who look at data every day, we implore you to keep this promise and listen to what the scientific community is saying about fossil fuels and the climate crisis. Do not facilitate more fuel extraction and infrastructure.”

The climate agenda Biden ran on has faced steep challenges from Republicans and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The Build Back Better Act, which includes the administration’s most comprehensive effort so far to shift the U.S. off fossil fuels, has remained stalled in Congress.

An analysis released last month by nonpartisan think tank Energy Innovation found that the bill could be instrumental in achieving U.S. energy independence by 2030. The analysis found that Build Back Better’s climate provisions could, by 2027, allow the U.S. to cut oil consumption by more than it imports from Russia and by 2030, the U.S. would have cut oil consumption by twice the amount of its Russian imports.

“Reductions in U.S. oil demand from electrification, coupled with continued transportation electrification in China and Europe are the best way to bring longlasting price stability to the global oil market,” the analysis states.

Neither more oil drilling nor more clean energy would immediately lower gas prices since it can take months or years for the energy to come online, which is why we need to be thinking long-term, Kalmus said, especially in the context of the United Nations’ latest climate report, which lays out a stark picture if global emissions aren’t curbed significantly by 2030. 

“The invasion of Ukraine presents a historic possibility for ramping down fossil fuels and embracing renewables and making that transition that we climate scientists know is desperately needed,” Kalmus said.

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