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Biden Is Squandering the Trade of the Century

Here’s the climate case for the Department of Energy buying millions of barrels of oil.

President Biden's campaign logo.
Heatmap Illustration

This might sound like heresy from a climate-change reporter, but here goes: President Joe Biden should start buying oil soon. A lot of it.

Specifically, he should begin refilling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or SPR, a set of subterranean salt caverns that line the Gulf Coast and can store hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. Over the past year or so, Biden sold 180 million barrels of oil from these caverns, but now it’s time to start buying that oil back. Doing so would help Biden’s domestic agenda and allow him to execute the trade of the century, generating billions of dollars in profits for the federal government.

But it would also help the climate. And every day that goes by without refilling that oil, Biden squanders his credibility and loses his clout. It’s time for the president to seal the deal.

But let’s back up.

Last year, Biden did something that — at least according to experts — should have been impossible. He tried to lower gas prices. And then he did it.

The SPR was key to the magic trick. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, oil prices spiked. By mid-March, the U.S. benchmark price for a barrel of oil — which had lingered in the $60 range for much of 2021 — reached $110. Gas hit $4.14 a gallon.

So Biden announced that the government would sell 180 million barrels of oil from the SPR over the course of six months. Despite initially rising, oil prices eventually dropped. In October, Biden formalized the SPR strategy and promised to keep oil in a goldilocks window. When oil hit $67 to $72 a barrel, he said, the Energy Department would begin refilling the SPR. That number was chosen because it’s slightly above the “breakeven” price, the price-per-barrel that American drillers need in order to turn a profit.

This pledge virtually guaranteed that the government would profit from Biden’s trade: It sold high in 2022, then it would buy low in 2023 and beyond.

There’s only one problem: It hasn’t started buying yet.

In March, oil sank below the $72 mark for two weeks, but the Energy Department didn’t start refilling the SPR. Instead, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm offered excuses as to why the department needed more time to start repurchases. Eventually, the OPEC+ cartel — annoyed that Biden hadn’t taken action yet — cut production and brought oil prices out of the refill range.

That was a profound missed opportunity — but now the White House has another chance. Earlier this week, oil fell back into the $67 to $72 range.

Here are three reasons that Biden needs to be as good as his word and buy oil — for the climate’s sake, for the country’s, and for his own.

1. When gasoline gets too cheap, the climate suffers. When oil is inexpensive, people use more of it, and they think less of using it in the future. They let their car idle longer in the driveway, and they choose to drive places that they might otherwise walk or bike to. All of that, of course, results in more carbon pollution.

Yet the real danger happens as people integrate cheap gasoline into their plans for the future. Then consumers and businesses buy bigger, more inefficient trucks and SUVs to drive around town, or they put off buying hybrids — or electric vehicles — because the fuel savings aren’t worth it. Even if the oil price eventually goes back up, those gas-guzzling vehicles remain in the fleet for years, contributing to a higher baseline of oil demand than would otherwise exist.

That’s how persistently cheap oil could drag down Biden’s climate policy. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has argued that even though electric vehicles cost more upfront, they’re “cheaper to own” than gas cars; the Environmental Protection Agency has made a similar case about its clean-cars proposal, which aims for EVs to make up two-thirds of new car sales by 2032. Those calculations are true right now, but they depend on oil prices remaining in a certain window: If gas gets too cheap, then all bets are off about EV affordability — especially if the price of lithium or another important mineral spikes, as some analysts expect.

I should add: This argument is, like, the opposite of counterintuitive. Virtually every climate-policy proposal from across the political spectrum — whether it’s implementing a carbon tax or blowing up pipelines — aims to make fossil fuels more expensive. Because if fossil fuels are more expensive, fewer people will use them. That’s the whole idea.

And refilling the SPR would certainly raise oil prices, in the same way emptying it lowered them. Which brings me to:

2. The federal government is squandering a rare moment to assert its authority in the global energy market. Since 2010, fracking and the shale revolution have turned America into the world’s largest oil producer and a net-oil exporter. Last year, the United States produced 20% of the world’s oil, more than Saudi Arabia and Iran combined. On paper, at least, the long-held dream of multiple presidential administrations — that the U.S. achieve “energy independence” — has come true.

But it’s not true in reality. That’s because power within the global oil market rests not with the biggest producer per se, but with the biggest swing producer: the country or countries that can ramp their oil production up or down at will. Right now, an informal cartel of countries called “OPEC+” — made up of the traditional OPEC countries plus Russia — has that power.

In a way, you can think of the global oil market as a giant, very fancy bathtub. Water can only enter the tub from a few dozen big faucets. (These are the oil-producing countries) And the water exits the system as it runs down a giant drain. (Oil exits the market when it’s refined into a fuel and burned, or when it’s turned into a chemical or plastic.)

In such a system, who gets to decide how full the tub is? It’s not the person with the biggest faucet, but whoever can turn their faucet on or off.

That’s what makes OPEC+ so powerful: It can turn its tap on and off. When OPEC+ decreases the flow of oil, oil prices rise; when it opens the tap, they fall. It helps, yes, that OPEC+ produces 40% of the world’s oil, but what really matters is that it can adjust its own faucet.

The United States, meanwhile, has the world’s largest faucet, but no ability to turn it on or off. In the OPEC countries, state-run companies produce oil, so governments can decide to ramp up or ramp down their country’s production as need be. But in America, hundreds of private companies and investors decide when to open new wells and increase production. Our faucet goes on and off in response to circumstances outside anyone’s control.

That was why the White House’s SPR gambit was such a neat trick. In essence, the Biden administration found a way to turn up the United States’ faucet, refilling the world’s tub and lowering oil prices for Americans. It has the opportunity to do the opposite now. By filling the SPR immediately, Biden can use the bathtub, in effect, like turning down a faucet — and therefore establish a floor under the global oil price. (Because the SPR would buy oil specifically from American producers, he would do so in a way that helps the domestic economy.)

But Biden must act now to do so. Oil is a physical thing; it can’t be delayed and appealed like a legal deadline. If Biden doesn’t seize the moment now, while oil is in this price window, then OPEC+ could cut supply again, boosting the oil price and robbing Biden of any clout and leaving America at the whim of international price setters. (This isn’t a hypothetical concern: Paranoid Democrats should consider what Biden would do — and whether he’d be able to act — if Saudi Arabia and Russia decided to, say, slash oil production a month before next year’s presidential election.)

3. Yet these wonky arguments are somewhat beside the point. There’s one overriding reason why the government must refill the SPR immediately: because President Biden said that it would.

President Biden — and the Department of Energy — are engaged in a once-in-a-generation experiment to revive “a modern American industrial strategy.” Biden wants to reshape markets, make big public investments, and push American companies to make productive and innovative decisions that help the middle class and better the planet. This is going to be hard. It’s going to be fraught. And no matter what, it’s going to require credibility: Business leaders must believe that Biden will do what he says — and that he won’t renege on commitments when politics intervene.

If Biden squanders his credibility on the SPR, the effect will be neither immediate nor dramatic. But the SPR failure will seep into his policymaking and eat away at his authority. Executives will second-guess the president’s commitment to labor, childcare, or renewables.

Presidents are said to have a “bully pulpit,” but Teddy Roosevelt coined that term to describe how the president’s words can shape economic outcomes that the Executive Branch has no explicit power over. The bully pulpit, in other words, is a major tool of industrial policy. If Biden doesn’t practice what he preaches, his will cease to exist.


Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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The country votes to annex their oil-rich neighbor, Guyana.

Nicolas Maduro.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

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