Opinion: No, high gas prices are not Joe Biden’s fault

But they also aren’t evidence of profiteering by big oil companies, as the president has hinted. Gasoline prices always make for good, but misguided, political theater.

Funny how rising gas prices can spark the conspiracy bandwagon and launch the blame game.

Facebook may be accused of fostering angry, polarizing content, but it would be hard to find a politician who isn’t quick to point fingers when the numbers start rolling upward at the pump. 

Gasoline makes for great political theater. We all need it to get around. Its price gets tacked onto the price of food and other goods because gas-powered trucks deliver those things to stores. And, as of August, the pump price was 42.7% higher than at the same time in 2020. 

Gas prices are like roller coasters. On the way up, we all grimace in sober anticipation, wondering who is to blame for us being there, strapped helplessly to the seat of doom.

On the way down, we’re all hoots and hollers, our hands in the air to enhance the moment. 

Well, not all. The sober-minded, and those with weak stomachs, may have an issue with gravity, instead. They know that, no matter how wild it may feel, what goes up probably will come down again.

But politics has conditioned us never to waste a good crisis. So, while we grimace at the thought of seeing a $4 sign at the neighborhood convenience store, let me debunk some common theories. 

No, President Joe Biden is not to blame for gas prices that, as I write this, average $3.71 in Utah, according to AAA.

Yes, he decided to close the Keystone XL Pipeline and he suspended new oil and gas leasing permits on federal land and water. I opposed both as shortsighted, bad decisions, but these will impact supplies in the future, not today.

As Robert Rapier wrote recently for Forbes, “The oil markets don’t react in real time to events like this.” Markets don’t know what supply and demand will look like in the far future, when the pipeline might have been finished. The pipeline wasn’t operating, so it had no effect on current prices.

Just as ridiculous, however, is the president’s assertion that oil companies are to blame, and that they are raising prices solely to increase profits.

“There’s lots of evidence that gas prices should be going down but they haven’t,” he said a couple of weeks ago.

Not exactly. Several easily explainable factors are at work.

For one thing, OPEC is refusing to increase production, despite surging demand for gas. As Axios reported, U.S. independent producers also are reluctant to ramp up “thanks to a recent wave of bankruptcies and investors demanding more focus on returns.”

Meanwhile, U.S. drivers are taking to the roads again. CBS News, citing an Apple mobility index, said we are driving 50% more than at pre-pandemic levels.

In addition, Hurricane Ida closed production for a time at several refineries. That came after a major ransomware attack hit the Colonial Pipeline.

CBS quoted Northeastern University energy expert Jeffery Born saying, “In short, I think we are having supply-chain problems. I’m sure Joe (Biden) wants prices to come down — you and I do, too. I’d also like to be 20 pounds lighter tomorrow.”

Frankly, I’d bet on prices coming down soon over me losing weight.

Years ago, during a similar spike, I happened to be visiting California. I was stopped by a man in a grocery store parking lot who asked me to sign a petition to send to Washington, “so they can hear us” about high gas prices. When I pressed him as to who “they” were and how they could change things, he became agitated. They need to stop raising gas prices, he insisted.

That may be a good slogan, but the truth is more complicated than the man with the petition, or politicians would have you believe.

Maybe gasoline politics will go away when everyone drives electric cars. However, plug-in electric cars now account for less than 2% of the vehicles on the road, according to policyadvice.net, and the Washington Post recently quoted Wards Intelligence data as saying hybrids account for just 4.9% of all vehicles.

High gas prices haven’t changed those figures much, yet.

None of this is new. In 1956, a Vermont legislator named John Hancock ran for governor, putting ads in local papers promising to investigate gasoline prices for you.” He lost.

This isn’t to suggest oil companies are beyond reproach or that politicians don’t do stupid things. But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, using today’s pump prices as a political weapon will result in a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist.