Updated Apr 12, 2022 - Economy
Axios Explains: Ukraine

Why gas prices are so high and what Biden can do about it

Photo illustration of President Biden holding a gas nozzle in front of a chart

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Gas prices reached record highs after Russia invaded Ukraine, prompting the Biden administration to scramble to reduce pain at the pump.

The latest: The Biden administration is set to announce new policies to help curb prices, including waiving requirements that limit the amount of ethanol in gasoline during summer months.

  • It plans to allow gasoline with up to 15% ethanol blend, rather than the usual 10%. Air pollution regulations normally restrict sales of those blends in the summer, Axios Generate co-author Ben Geman reports.
  • Officials estimate the change can save an average of 10 cents per gallon where the fuel is sold.

The big picture: The U.S. is effectively energy independent, but bans on Russian oil exports from the U.S. and other countries will have a knock-on effect in world markets.

1) Why aren’t U.S. oil companies increasing production faster?

U.S. oil and gas production reached a record high in 2019, then plummeted during the pandemic. It was already rising again before Russia invaded Ukraine.

U.S. crude oil production
Data: EIA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

It's a colossal feat to re-start all that halted production, but the number of active oil rigs has grown steadily since bottoming out in 2020. Still, the rig count is far shy of the 2019 peak.

Data: Baker Hughes; Chart: Axios Visuals

Between the lines: U.S. oil drillers haven’t returned to 2019 production levels in part because investors have called for discipline to put an end to boom-and-bust cycles of overproduction and bankruptcies.

  • The industry is also suffering from broader supply chain problems and labor shortages that make it harder to rapidly scale up production, as Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub said this week, per Reuters.

2) Can Biden open Keystone XL to lower gas prices?

Some Republicans and Canadian politicians have called on Biden to greenlight the unfinished Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought oil from the tar sands of Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

  • "If President Biden had not vetoed that project, it would be done later this year – 840,000 barrels of democratic energy that could have displaced the 600,000 plus barrels of Russian conflict oil that’s filled with the blood of Ukrainians," said Jason Kinney, the premier of Canada's Alberta province — where the Keystone XL pipeline originated.
  • The project was first proposed in 2008. The Obama administration rejected a permit in 2015. A new permit was issued by the Trump administration in 2019. The Biden administration revoked the permit in January of 2021.
  • Less than 10% of the pipeline had been constructed as of March 2021, according to Reuters.

The bottom line: The company developing Keystone XL abandoned the project in June of 2021, and it would take years to finish if restarted now.

3) Why is Biden asking dictators to help lower gas prices?

Another avenue for the U.S. to reduce gas prices is to ask major oil producers to increase production.

Two of the biggest targets are Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, both members of OPEC, the oil cartel that tries to regulate global production and prices. The cartel rebuffed Biden requests to increase production back in November of 2021.

  • Saudi Arabia: President Biden’s advisers are discussing a possible visit to Saudi Arabia this spring to help repair relations and convince the Kingdom to pump more oil, Axios' Hans Nichols reported.

4) Who imports the most oil from Russia?

The biggest importer of Russian oil is China, followed by Germany and the Netherlands. Many eastern European countries are heavily reliant on Russian imports for oil and natural gas.

OECD oil imports
Total imports of crude oil and oil products. Data: IEA; Table: Will Chase/Axios

5) Who sends the most oil to the U.S.?

Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Russia export the most oil to the U.S., and Russian oil mostly goes to Hawaii and the coasts.

Top oil exporters to the U.S.
Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

6) How gas prices compare when you consider inflation

Adjusted for inflation, gas was more expensive throughout much of the early teens and financial crisis era (in today’s dollars, gas was $5.31 back in June 2008).

Data: Energy Information Administration; Chart: Axios Visuals

Relative to average earnings, gas is also less expensive today than it has been throughout much of the 2000s. University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers lays it out here.

7) Can politicians suspend gas taxes to lower prices?

Some governors and state lawmakers are looking to give people a gas tax break as gas prices continue to climb, reports Axios' Shawna Chen. Gas taxes vary by state, with Pennsylvania and California having the highest.

State gas taxes
Data: Federation of Tax Administrators; Map: Baidi Wang/Axios

Several governors are also calling on Congress to support a bill that would suspend the federal gas tax — 18.4 cents per gallon — for the rest of the year.

  • "Money saved at the pump translates into dollars back in consumers’ pockets for groceries, childcare, rent, and more," six Democratic governors wrote in a letter to congressional leaders this week.

Go deeper: Soaring gas prices not yet souring demand

Editor's note: This article was first published on March 9 and has been updated with newer developments.

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