Ro Khanna Says High Gas Prices Are Oil Companies’ Fault

YouVoters are irritated by nflation. Washington’s conventional wisdom is that rising gas prices pose a major liability to Congressional Democrats., Already, they are expected to lose their seats in 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 is a Democrat representing California. He has a unique strategy. He believes that Democrats need to be aggressive and find a solution for the problem at the well. “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. While his words may not be of much substance, it is indicative of the growing challenge in climate communication. 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 to move the debate on climate and energy by placing oil companies in the middle of gas-price discussions. “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. House Democrats recently introduced legislation giving the Biden Administration more power to monitor and investigate price gouging allegations. 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. Many prominent Democrats are now embracing this talking point, including Chuck Schumer (Senate Majority Leader) from New York and Frank Pallone (House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman). “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. Instantly, oil and gas changed the political climate. They became an essential lifeline for democracy from being the old energy source. Meanwhile, most voters and consumers’ worries shifted from climate concerns to high prices at the pump. According to polls, inflation is the most pressing concern leading up to the November midterm election. And gas prices represent one of the main areas in which consumers will feel the price rises directly.

Nevertheless, Democrats and their allies believe they have the ability to win this messaging war. 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. Khanna is one of the industry’s critics. He says that companies should not price their products in a way that allows them to make huge profit during a crisis. The first quarter of 2022 saw five companies making a record $35 billion. “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.

According to polls, most Americans agree with the findings.

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