Biden says that fuel is ‘beginning to flow,’ as administration struggles to limit political damage from gas shortage
By Sean Sullivan
President Biden on Thursday urged anxious Americans not to panic and rush to stockpile gasoline, seeking to reassure the country that a severe fuel shortage that has gripped the Southeast will likely be resolved in coming days.
“Gasoline supply is coming back online and panic buying will only slow the process,” Biden warned. Although fuel from a once-stalled pipeline is “beginning to flow” again, Biden said, many areas “will not feel the effects at the pump immediately.”
The restart is “not like flicking on a light switch,” Biden said, adding that he expects a “region-by-region return to normalcy beginning this weekend and continuing into next week.”
Biden’s remarks came amid a fierce political showdown over his handling of the situation. The administration has struggled this week to contain the shortage, prompting Republicans to open a new line of attack against him on an issue that has long been fraught with political peril for the party that controls the White House.
In Congress, Republicans have seized on Biden’s moves to transition away from fossil fuels, suggesting it imperils the country’s energy security. On Fox News, conservative hosts have blamed the president for rising prices at the pump and long lines of cars snaking around gas stations, with one dubbing it “Biden’s gas crisis.” And in midterm battleground states where gas is running low, Republican leaders have panned Biden’s response.
White House officials — sensitive to how quickly concerns about gas can become full-blown political crises — have aggressively sought to showcase their efforts to ease the shortage, which was triggered by a cyberattack that forced a major pipeline to suspend service. They’ve enlisted Cabinet secretaries to explain the response in front of TV cameras and brief local officials; they’ve issued a flurry of written updates throughout the week; and they’ve touted their decisions to relax restrictions to boost gas delivery by ground transportation.
On Wednesday evening, Colonial Pipeline announced plans to restart operations after discussions with the Biden administration. But the company said it could take several days to resolve the problems that have plagued some states with higher fuel prices and gas stations that have run dry, keeping pressure on Biden in the interim.
The public relations battle underlines the strong belief in both major parties about how potent a political issue gas can become. From the BP oil spill during the Obama administration to the oil crisis that derailed the Carter administration, presidents have for decades confronted, with mixed results, catastrophes over a resource that is part of daily life for most Americans. The issue is especially resonant right now, Republicans said, with people eager to hit the road after more than a year of pandemic lockdown.
“Just when Americans are starting to come awake again, they cannot find the gasoline to drive from where they are to where they want to go,” said former congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, a longtime Republican strategist.
“I think people recognize Biden didn’t create this problem,” Davis added, “but Trump didn’t create covid-19 either, did he?”
His point — that a president’s political fate often rests on how he responds to emergencies that arise on his watch — has been a guiding principle for Republicans during the Biden presidency. They have been searching for ways to tag Biden as an agent of chaos — pointing to upticks in violent crime and a surge of migrants to the southern border to bolster their claims. The gas shortage marks their latest attempt.
But they have struggled to effectively rebut Biden’s efforts to cast his presidency as a calming influence over a nation that spent four years lurching from one crisis to the next under the Trump administration. Biden has received high marks from the public for his pandemic relief efforts and White House officials said they are taking a similar approach to the gas shortage — lean on experts, explain publicly what they are doing and urge people not to panic.
“Our responsibility is to help mitigate this crisis, to work with the company to help bring the pipeline back online and to communicate directly with folks around the country about what we are doing so that they understand and have confidence that this will end and resolve itself shortly,” White House deputy communications director Kate Berner said in an interview. Berner has spearheaded the White House communications strategy on the issue.
In some areas, the shortages were stark. In North Carolina, 69 percent of gas stations experienced fuel outages as of late Wednesday afternoon according to GasBuddy. Forty-six percent of stations in Georgia had outages, and more than half of Virginia stations were in the same boat, the data showed.
Colonial Pipeline, which provides the East Coast with 45 percent of its fuel, was forced to halt operations after a cyberattack that pushed it offline last week. Biden has been briefed every day starting with a Saturday morning session at Camp David, according to a White House official, and his team has taken steps to try to alleviate the problems.
Yohannes Abraham, the National Security Council chief of staff, and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, briefed Biden at Camp David, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. The White House assembled an interagency team to deal with the issue last Friday that has conducted regular calls and Zoom meetings on the topic, the official said.
But some Republicans have voiced skepticism about how prepared the administration was to deal with the situation, and pointed to mixed messages from top officials.
“At this point in time, I would just reiterate: We don’t see a supply issue,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.
On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm made a similar point. “It’s not that we have a gasoline shortage, it’s that we have this supply crunch, and that things will be back to normal soon, and that we’re asking people not to hoard,” she told reporters.
Her words did little to ease the alarm that had already ensued. By Tuesday night, images of long waits at gas stations and out-of-service pumps were plastered across television screens. Sean Hannity, a conservative host whose show draws a large audience on Fox News, declared it “Biden’s gas crisis” in a graphic on his program.
On Wednesday, a parade of Republicans sounded similar notes.
“We really do need the federal government to step up,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who declared a state of emergency to free up more fuel to be delivered through alternative means.
“It shouldn’t take a hack/shutdown for this admin to recognize the importance of modern infrastructure like #KeystoneXL to ensure U.S. energy security,” tweeted Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) made a similar point, tweeting, “America is facing a gas shortage. We need to get the Colonial pipeline back to work, and the Keystone pipeline back to construction.”
Thune and Blackburn were referring to Biden’s decision to rescind the permit for construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. That pipeline would carry oil from Canada through Western and Midwestern states, and there’s no evidence a different policy would have changed matters following the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline.
At the White House on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg kicked off the daily media briefing by ticking though all of the recent steps the administration had taken to deal with the problem. He said officials were working “around-the-clock,” with a top priority of “getting the fuel to communities that need it.”
In addition to working with Colonial, he said the administration eased regulations to enable truck drivers to work more hours delivering gas and determined that some states can take advantage of federal declarations to allow drivers to carry more gas — moves designed to bypass the pipeline stoppage. The administration has relaxed other regulations to try to get more gas into the states that need it.
Administration officials have been in touch with governors of the affected states. And in an effort to communicate directly with people in those states, Granholm is making appearances on stations that broadcast there, Berner said.
In North Carolina, the state that has been hit particularly hard, Biden was also getting some support from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He said Granholm called him promptly discuss the situation and the federal response has been effective. Republican criticism has been unjustified, he said.
“There will always be threats and vulnerabilities,” Cooper said. “What you need is an administration that will step up and keep holding people’s feet to the fire to get things fixed. And that’s exactly the response that I have seen.”