Inflation is rankling voters, and the conventional wisdom in Washington is that sky high gas prices are a big liability for Congressional Democrats, who are already expected to lose seats in the fast-approaching midterm elections. Republicans have tried to place the blame for higher costs on the Biden Administration’s green agenda—never mind that Democrats have struggled to implement those policies—while Democrats, particularly in the administration, tend to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
Rep. Ro Khanna a Democrat from California, has a different strategy. Instead of hiding from the bad news at the pump, he says, Democrats should go on the offensive and identify a culprit of its own: the oil and gas industry. “I don’t think it’s enough to have a message of ‘blame Putin,’” Khanna told me on May 3. “Someone is going to get blamed in American politics… and that blame should fall on the big oil companies.”
The substance of Khanna’s argument is simple. Oil and gas companies are taking advantage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine—and the resulting high oil prices—to drive up prices for consumers even though the cost to produce oil hasn’t fundamentally changed. Substance aside, his urging is an indication of the evolving challenge of messaging on climate. Even as climate disasters become increasingly apparent and costly, it’s hard to compete for attention with the pocketbook costs that Americans are feeling immediately.
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Khanna hopes that putting oil companies at the center of the gas-price discussion will help move the conversation on both climate and the rising cost of energy. “The reality is that every American is sacrificing at this time—paying five bucks, six bucks in my district—at the pump, and they’re seeing big oil making record profits at the same time because of the war in Ukraine,” he says. “That’s not fair.”
Some of Khanna’s Democratic colleagues are following a similar path. In recent weeks, House Democrats have advanced legislation that would give the Biden Administration increased authority to track and investigate alleged price gouging. The bill would not change the economic fundamentals that are pushing up gas prices, but it does take the fight to the industry rhetorically by suggesting that the industry’s actions are so egregious that they merit investigation. Several leading Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer from New York and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, are embracing that talking point. “This is a major exploitation of the consumer, because this is a product the consumer must have,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference last week.
One step forward, two steps back
When Ro Khanna took over as the chair of the House Oversight Committee’s Environment Subcommittee last year, he planned an aggressive agenda to hold oil and gas companies accountable. He came out of the gate with a hearing on the billions in government subsidies the industry receives, and continued with a high-profile investigation into the industry’s history denying the science of climate change.
At an October hearing with the CEOs of several major oil and gas giants, Khanna expressed frustration that the companies’ leadership took such a hardline defending their predecessors’ decision to question climate science and fund misinformation public campaigns. “I’m surprised they still haven’t come clean, and they’re still defending all the statements that their companies have ever made on climate disinformation,” Khanna tells me. “They should just come clean and say that in the past they had executives who lied about climate… and that they now are going to tell the truth going forward.”
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But Khanna’s plan to hold the oil and gas industry’s feet to the fire for its climate misdeeds took a backseat when Russia invaded Ukraine. As Europe sanctioned Russian oil, global oil supply tightened, but demand largely remained constant—driving up costs at the pump. All of the sudden, the political zeitgeist changed: oil and gas went from the dusty energy source of the past to a vital lifeline for democracy. Meanwhile, most voters and consumers’ worries shifted from climate concerns to high prices at the pump. Polls have consistently shown that inflation as the leading concern in the lead up to the November midterm elections, and gas prices are one of the areas where consumers are most likely to feel price increases directly.
Still, some Democrats and their allies say they can win the messaging battle. Some 60% of voters are ready to blame oil companies for high gas prices and 87% support a “crackdown” on those companies for doing so, according to internal polling from League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power conducted by Hart Research. “If we leave the messaging to big oil or anti-climate members of Congress, they can be effective,” says Pete Maysmith, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. “But our message is more powerful. And we have to engage.”
Rhetorical maneuvering aside, it’s worth asking: are oil and gas companies actually behaving badly in response to the Russian invasion? Industry leaders argue that higher gas prices are the result of the immutable forces of global supply and demand—not price gouging. But industry critics, like Khanna, say that the companies should not be pricing their product such that they can turn such an enormous profit amidst a crisis. Five of the biggest companies made a total of $35 billion in profit in the first quarter of 2022. “It’s not fair that record profits are being made by big oil executives, at the same time that Americans are being fleeced at the pump,” he says.
If the polls are to be believed, the American public mostly agrees.