Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has thrown world energy markets into turmoil. Prices are high; Europe is still dependent on natural gas from Russia; and Joe Biden is urging other countries to boost petroleum output. For his efforts, the president is under attack from both Republicans and Democrats, who are each erring in their own peculiar way.
Biden has banned imports of Russian oil and gas because such purchases would help fund Putin's war. But he is not content to see world oil supplies shrink. On March 31, he said he would release 1 million barrels per day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next six months.
The administration has also lobbied the unsavory governments of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to boost output. The same president who wants to phase out the burning of fossil fuels now wants to ensure that plenty of fossil fuels are available for burning.
His GOP critics accuse him of hypocrisy. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said, "Biden must end his war on American energy production so the United States and our allies can have access to affordable, secure energy." Republicans still live by Sarah Palin's credo: Drill, baby, drill.
But progressives are equally unhappy, urging Biden to take steps to "end the fossil fuel era and petrochemical tyranny" by ramping up renewable energy production. "Putting more oil on the market is not the solution to our problem but the perpetuation of our problem," said Mark Brownstein, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Both sides make the same mistake, which is failing to understand the difference between short-term necessities and long-term imperatives. In an emergency, your focus is on the immediate need, not the long-term one. But it's important that while attending to the present, you don't forfeit the future.
Biden is capable of meeting both obligations. He understands that letting prices soar is a bad thing for the anti-Putin effort (and the world economy). At the moment, his priority is depriving Russia of the means to fund its aggression.
Biden's Strategic Petroleum Reserve announcement helped, pushing prices down below $100 per barrel. Getting other oil exporters to increase production would further depress prices and make it harder for Putin to sell his most important commodity.
If resisting aggression against Ukraine means making nice with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, so what? Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt teamed up with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to defeat Nazi Germany, and it's a good thing they did. "If Hitler invaded hell," Churchill said, "I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons."
Conservatives think Russia's power over global fuel supplies proves the need to produce more oil here at home. They say that by canceling the Keystone pipeline and putting a moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal lands, Biden has inflated gasoline prices and doomed Americans to be fleeced by Putin.
But those policies have little if anything to do with the current price of gasoline. Killing Keystone didn't reduce oil supplies, because it hadn't been built. New federal oil and gas leases would take years to generate production. Biden's policies may mean higher fossil fuel prices down the road, but not now, and not soon.
The current supply crunch, we are told, proves the need to increase exploration and drilling. But the supply of oil on the world market — and the price here at home — will always be at the mercy of unpredictable events in foreign lands. Under the oil-friendly presidency of George W. Bush, the price more than quadrupled, topping out at $128 per barrel — the equivalent of over $168 in today's money.
Sunshine and wind keep coming regardless of wars and revolutions on distant shores. Supplies of renewable energy are far more reliable than those of fossil fuels. Real "energy independence" is not producing more oil and gas at home; it's freeing ourselves from the need for either. Putin has far more to fear from solar panels and wind turbines than from the Permian Basin, and so do Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
More important, though, is that clean energy addresses the emergency of climate change — which is less immediate than Putin's invasion but ultimately even more dangerous. Doubling down on fossil fuels is the wrong strategy for a warming world.
The war in Ukraine is a matter of urgent consequence, but it won't last forever. The best energy policy is one that meets the needs of today without torching tomorrow
Steve Chapman is a former columnist for the Chicago Tribune.