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The Democrats’ plan to turn the tables on gasoline prices

By Emma Dumain | 06/11/2024 06:33 AM EDT

A Biden campaign official told POLITICO’s E&E News the president and his surrogates would blame pain at the pump on corporate greed and corruption.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and other Democrats are doubling down on blaming the oil industry for high gasoline prices. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Democrats are deploying a plan to deflect criticism that their party’s policies are to blame for rising gasoline prices, just as summer travel season gets underway: Pin responsibility on Big Oil.

A recent spate of bad publicity for the oil and gas industry has given the well-worn talking point new traction among congressional Democrats and inside President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign looking to improve the incumbent’s poll numbers.

The activity follows years of Republicans using Biden’s climate and environmental policies to their advantage. Since the GOP took over the House, it has pushed legislation to boost fossil fuel production and kill energy efficiency standards. It even hosted an “energy week” on the floor designed to contrast the conservative position of “energy dominance” with the Democrats’ “rush-to-green” agenda.

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A Biden campaign official — granted anonymity to share details of internal policy — told POLITICO’s E&E News to expect the president and his surrogates to double down on the narrative of how corporate greed and corruption are what’s contributing to pain at the pump.

House and Senate Democrats are picking up on the cues. They are amplifying the rhetoric on Capitol Hill — holding press conferences, writing letters and launching investigations.

“What frustrates Americans so much about Big Oil … [is] even when they’re making money hand over fist, they’ll keep raising prices on us,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a recent speech on the Senate floor. “They will keep squeezing us for everything we’ve got.”

But Democrats face headwinds in getting the message across between now and Election Day, and it’s unclear whether party leaders will do enough to break through with an electorate angry about inflation.

Data from AAA shows gasoline prices are on a downward trend. Regular gas was going for an average of $3.45 a gallon on June 10, 19 cents less than the average one month ago and 15 cents less than the average in the previous year.

But the last 3½ years, voters have been inundated with Republican messaging about how the administration’s “radical climate agenda” is the reason that energy costs have generally remained high.

Jamie Henn, director of the nonprofit Fossil Free Media, said he has been encouraged by “a shift” in Democratic messaging on who is to blame for oil and gas prices that is putting blame for ballooning oil and gas prices more squarely on the shoulders of special interests.

He conceded, however, the onus will be on Democrats to keep the message focused and in the forefront. He also cautioned they’re coming in late in the game.

“Republicans have been really confident in pushing the argument that Biden is to blame for gas prices. … It’s been drilled into people’s heads,” Henn explained.

“Democrats have pointed to a variety of issues — first [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, then Big Oil, then how President Biden is lowering gas prices by doing the [strategic oil reserve] release,” he said, “It sort of muddled the message along the way.”

‘We’re not going to allow it’

The Biden campaign says it plans to make sure voters keep hearing the message. The campaign official said to expect the president and his allies to continue demonizing the oil and gas industry as a counternarrative to the Republican rhetoric of “Bidenflation.”

Bad headlines will help Democrats with their plans. The Washington Post that former President Donald Trump offered oil executives the promise of reversing certain Biden administration energy policies in exchange for $1 billion in campaign support.

POLITICO also reported that the oil and gas industry was actively drafting executive orders for Trump to sign should he be returned to office that would overturn Biden regulations designed to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. The industry has with the former president.

Then there was the release of the findings of a Federal Trade Commission investigation, which concluded that the CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources, now part of Exxon Mobil, sought to collude with OPEC countries and rival companies to fix oil production at levels that would keep prices elevated. The former executive against him.

Schumer participated in a splashy news event outside the Capitol last month with fellow progressives and advocates to decry what he sees as industry price gouging. He went on a week later to lead a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Justice Department to investigate the FTC allegations.

Press conference.
(Left to right) Schumer, Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Reps. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Calif.) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) stand in front of environmental advocates during a May press conference. | Emma Dumain/POLITICO’s E&E News

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), chair of the Budget Committee, are jointly investigating the collusion allegations.

Whitehouse, who has alienated Republicans on his panel for holding 20 hearings and counting linking financial catastrophe to the climate crisis, said it was helpful having other Democrats speaking out now.

“I think people kind of dial me out … [so] I’m happy every time the caucus makes any effort to call out the corrupting influence and self-dealing of the fossil fuel industry,” he said.

On the House side, two committee ranking members — Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) of Energy and Commerce and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of Natural Resources — have asked their respective GOP chairs to hold hearings on the FTC report, with Pallone saying he has directed minority committee staff to launch its own inquiry.

Pallone appeared at a highway rest stop in his district Monday alongside Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, to provide an update on the investigation so far.

“President Biden and Democrats have really been concerned about this issue of high gas prices. … [We] are trying to do what I call ‘put people over politics,'” Pallone said against the backdrop of a parking lot.

“We understand the oil companies are trying to increase prices, and we’re not going to allow it,” he added. “We’re going to do whatever we can, even if we don’t get the cooperation of the Republicans or the oil companies.”

He also maligned Republicans for “being very much with the oil companies on so many issues,” saying their support for legislation to resume liquefied natural gas export permits would inherently raise energy prices.

‘Looking for a scapegoat’

The test for Democrats will be whether they can sustain their campaign and whether the messaging sticks with voters.

“Democrats have a bad habit of tackling these issues as one-offs,” Henn said. “This summer, when prices may go up again and extreme weather events are unfolding, they should repeatedly bring this issue to the fore. … This is a winning issue.”

Congressional Republicans are largely responding with a shrug or open ridicule.

House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said she would have to “take a look” at the FTC report, and House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) had no comment, , while several several House Republicans who chair Energy and Commerce subcommittees — including Reps. Brett Guthrie of Kentucky and Bob Latta of Ohio, who want to succeed McMorris Rodgers when she retires at the end of this term — told POLITICO’s E&E News they were totally unfamiliar with the findings.

House Energy and Commerce member August Pfluger (R-Texas), meanwhile, who represents the oil-rich Permian Basin, said his takeaway from the FTC allegations was that an investigation was warranted — not into price fixing but into “overreach” by federal agencies.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in a recent floor speech, mocked Democrats for trying to turn the tables on who is to blame for high oil prices in an election year.

“Suddenly, right before an election, Democrats are concerned about the high prices Americans are paying to fill up their gas tank. But they still can’t seem to correctly assign the blame,” said McConnell.

“Just last month, [Schumer] berated, quote, ‘Big Oil companies’ for ‘continuing to rake in the cash at the expense of the American people.’ … If Washington Democrats are looking for a scapegoat for soaring energy prices, it’s about time they looked in the mirror.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks alongside other Senate Republican leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks alongside other Senate Republican leaders during a press conference at the Capitol. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

‘The greatest energy president’

Scott Lauermann, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute that represents the oil and gas industry, was likewise dismissive.

“American voters are looking for solutions to help alleviate rising costs and persistent inflation, not election-year stunts that distract from America’s need for more affordable and reliable energy,” said Lauermann.

Alex Flint, who as the executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions has worked hard over the years to bring conservatives and business leaders together in support of climate policies like a carbon tax, said he also saw through the Democrats’ tactic.

“Under this administration, the United States has produced record volumes of oil and natural gas, which has kept prices low and boosted the economy,” he said, “and to show progressives that Democrats are committed to climate, they are finding reasons to bash the very companies that have produced abundant oil and gas and kept prices low.”

Part of the Democrats’ conundrum this election year is that they are battling higher gas prices than consumers would like but which are still undoubtedly on the decline as a direct result of policies that have expanded domestic oil and gas production beyond even that of the prior Trump administration.

President Joe Biden.
President Joe Biden during a campaign rally in March. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

It’s a record many progressive environmental activists have scorned, leading the Sunrise Movement — which has succeeded in other instances on pushing Biden to the left on climate issues — declining to endorse him for reelection, for now.

“Joe Biden is the greatest energy president in American history,” said James Singer, a Biden campaign spokesperson. “The United States is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades and American energy of all kinds have hit record production levels, resulting in lower costs for consumers and hundreds of thousands of new jobs for American workers.”

Ultimately, said Holly Burke, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Evergreen Action, it’s a political imperative for Democrats on Capitol Hill to keep turning the blame back to the oil and gas industry.

“People are really concerned about energy prices,” she said, “and if Democrats were to drop the ball and stop talking about it, they’d be ceding the ground on one of the most important issues of the election.”