March 8

By Susan Milligan

After bipartisan political pressure from Capitol Hill and an emotional plea from embattled Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced he would ban oil imports from Russia to further cripple the Eastern European nation’s crumbling economy.

“That means Russian oil will no longer be acceptable at U.S. ports and the American people will deal another powerful blow to Putin’s war machine,” Biden said from the White House. “We will not be part of subsidizing Putin’s war.”

The immediate ban – which had mounting support from congressional lawmakers eager to show support for the Ukrainian people – is more of a political statement than an economic one by the United States, which gets about 3% of its oil from Russia.

Since America’s allies in Europe, a region that relies far more heavily on Russian energy, largely have not joined with a ban of their own – Britain said Tuesday it would phase out Russian oil and energy products by the end of 2022 – the economic impact on Russia itself may be muted even as it hikes prices at U.S. gas pumps.

Still, pressure has been building to make a powerful and definitive statement that not only further isolates Russia but sends a signal to under-siege Ukrainians that Americans support them – and are willing to pay more for gas to show it, advocates of the ban say.
“Over the last two weeks, the Ukrainian people have inspired the world … with their bravery, their patriotism, their defiant determination to live free,” Biden said. Meanwhile, “Putin seems determined to continue on his murderous path, no matter the cost.”

Biden’s move not only bans the import of oil and energy products from Russia but bars Americans from participating in foreign investments that flow into Russia’s energy sector, a senior administration official told reporters.

The announcement was hailed on Capitol Hill, where the House was preparing to pass its own ban on Russian oil imports as early as Tuesday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, sent a “dear colleague” letter to fellow lawmakers outlining a bill to ban the import of Russian oil and energy, repeal normal trade relations with Russia and its aligned neighbor, Belarus, and to take the first steps to deny Russia access to the World Trade Organization.

“The time of lining Putin’s pockets by buying billions worth of Russian oil and petroleum is over,” Sen. Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.

“Good news. After sending Putin millions for oil, Biden has been shamed into doing the right thing,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said on Twitter.

The Biden administration had been hedging on imposing the ban, partly because of the impact on already high gas prices and partly because Europe is not yet willing to impose a similar ban.

Part of Putin’s frustration in the invasion, which began two weeks ago, is that NATO and other international alliances have been markedly united in standing up to the Russian leader. A divided response, then, could not only result in disparate burdens on countries seeking to stop Putin but could signal to the Russians a fissure among allies fighting him.

Biden said Tuesday he understands that “many of our allies and partners may not be in a position to join us.” Unlike other nations, the president noted, the United States is a net exporter of oil.

“We can take this step when others cannot,” Biden said, adding that the administration is “working closely” with allies to find long-term ways for Europe to buy less Russian oil.

The American president acknowledged freely that gas prices will increase because of the additional sanctions announced Tuesday, saying “the decision today is not without costs here at home.” He noted the previous announcement of the release of 60 million barrels of oil – 30 million of them from the United States’ Strategic Petroleum Reserve – to increase supply.

The United States is committed to releasing a total of 90 million barrels from the reserve this fiscal year, an administration official said in a background call with reporters.

But gas prices are dictated by more than active supply and demand. Other factors – such as uncertainty about Putin’s plans and the global response to them – affect the energy markets, and with them, the price of a gallon of gas.

Biden warned the oil and gas industry that the crisis and volatility in the markets was “no excuse” for “excessive prices. … It’s not a time for profiteering or price-gouging.

“This is a time we have to do our part and make sure we are not taking advantage,” Biden said. He did not make any threats or say how his administration would or could stop the oil and gas industry from raising prices higher than necessary.

A poll by Quinnipiac University released Tuesday found that an overwhelming majority of Americans – 71% – want a ban on Russian oil, even if it means higher gas prices. Just 22% disagreed. That is similar to a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week showing 8 in 10 Americans support a ban on Russian oil.

But high gas prices can also wreak havoc on Democrats during this fall’s midterm elections. Even though Republicans have joined Democrats in calling for the oil import ban, it is the party in power that is most likely to be punished at the polls if gas prices continue to escalate.

Democrats, including Biden on Tuesday, said the crisis was a reminder to move to alternative energy to make the nation less reliant on foreign energy sources – not just Russia but countries like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have poor human rights records but plentiful oil.

Republicans said the ban should force Biden to allow more drilling on U.S. land. In January 2021, Biden signed an executive order to halt new oil and gas leases on public lands and water.

“Democrats aren’t trying to punish Russia OR help Americans,” House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said on Twitter. “They actually want gas prices to be as high as possible so they can scam you with their radical Green New Deal.”

However, the industry is sitting on 9,000 leases for exploratory drilling in the U.S. and have not exercised them, the White House notes. “Let me be clear: They are not using them for production. Those are the facts,” Biden said.

Neither the release of new drilling leases nor the exercise of already-approved leases would bring immediate relief, since it takes time to drill oil, refine it and get it to gas stations.

American oil imports from Russia have dropped precipitously since last May, long before the invasion loomed according to the Energy Information Administration. After hitting a peak of 27,171,000 barrels in May 2021, imports dropped in December to 12,569,000, the agency reported.

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