Dec 20, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Biden, U.S. oil boom are the new odd couple

Illustration of a man standing on top of an oil barrel with water rising all around.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A call between senior Biden administration aides and reporters nicely captured a politically delicate White House stance on record U.S. oil and gas production and exports.

Why it matters: Felix Unger, meet Oscar Madison. The world's largest economy is also a powerhouse in global energy markets.

  • Yet that fact doesn't sit well with the environmental lobby, a vocal constituency President Biden needs as he heads into a tough reelection fight next year.

Driving the news: Ali Zaidi, a senior climate adviser, was asked Tuesday how 2023's record levels of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports and oil output align with the White House's climate goals.

The intrigue: It was on a call meant to tout growth of the "clean" energy economy under Biden. Here's how Zaidi fielded the question...

  • He noted the U.S. has been expanding a "variety of forms" of energy production, adding that "under the president's leadership, clean energy production is off the charts."
  • He added the administration takes in the "best of" scientific, economic and technical data to craft "strong and smart" emissions policy.
  • Zaidi said Biden's been "clear" on the need — reflected in COP28's outcome in Dubai — to "transition globally" from fossil fuels.
  • He closed by saying the White House is being "diligent" about ways to grow the economy, boost energy security, manufacturing, jobs and "meet that climate imperative."

Between the lines: Zaidi's response clearly refused to embrace the oil and gas boom. However, earlier in the call, White House adviser John Podesta noted how LNG helped Europe replace Russian gas.

  • But the explicit emphasis on the globe's transition away from fossil fuels fell short in at least one respect. It didn't openly acknowledge activists' calls for aggressive steps to stem fossil fuel production.
  • And the White House has cited lower gasoline prices, aided by higher U.S. production, in seeking to parry attacks on Biden's energy record from Republicans.
  • Biden also called for more oil production in an earlier stage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis in 2022.
  • The GOP and industry critics argue the U.S. boom is occurring in spite of Biden's policies and reflects the fruits of much older decisions and investments.
Data: Center for Strategic and International Studies via IMF staff reports; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Center for Strategic and International Studies via IMF staff reports; Chart: Axios Visuals

The complicated White House position on U.S. oil and gas reflects an unusual dynamic. The U.S. is the world's biggest producer of oil and natural gas, and the world's largest LNG exporter.

  • But the diversified economy and other factors mean that overall, the U.S. isn't nearly as dependent on fossil fuel revenues as other huge players like Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Of note: That chart above shows data from wide-ranging International Monetary Fund assessments of national economies, called Article IV reports.

  • Those reports don't show that overall federal dependence metric for oil produced in the U.S.
  • But I consulted multiple experts who said it would be lower than what you see above.

Yes, but: Reliance on oil and gas revenues and jobs is extremely high for numerous U.S. local and state governments. The nonpartisan think tank Resources For the Future (RFF) has a breakdown.

  • In multiple states, oil and gas account for over 10% of state and local revenue; in some cases it's much more, RFF's Daniel Raimi tells me.

The big picture: Tallying the exact impact of the industry on the U.S. economy depends on what you count.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts nearly 120,000 jobs in extraction alone, but that's just part of the petro-value chain.
  • A PwC study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, a major industry lobbying group, shows 2.3 million direct jobs — and far more if you count "indirect" employment.
  • It says the sector directly represented 3.3% of total U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021 — and if you look at spillover effects, it rises to 7.6%.

Context: The domestic industry is very large, but the wider structure of the U.S. economy gives Biden running room to pursue transition.

The bottom line: Look for this political tightrope to get even thinner as the 2024 elections draw closer.

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