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A customer pumps gas at a Shell gas station on July 30, 2020 in San Rafael, California. Royal Dutch Shell reported second quarter adjusted earnings of $638 million compared to a net profit of $3.5 billion one year earlier. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A customer pumps gas at a Shell gas station on July 30, 2020 in San Rafael, California. Royal Dutch Shell reported second-quarter adjusted earnings of $638 million compared to a net profit of $3.5 billion one year earlier. (Photo: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images)

As COP26 Climate Talks Begin, Biden Pressures OPEC to Boost Oil Production

"The U.S. is running backwards," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil

Before U.S. President Joe Biden could tout Washington's ostensible commitment to addressing the planetary emergency at the COP26 climate conference that kicked off Sunday in Glasgow, the White House doubled down on its ongoing effort to pressure the world's oil-producing giants to boost supply, provoking frustration and alarm in the process.

"Do you see any irony in pushing [OPEC+] to increase oil production at the same time that you're going to COP26 to urge people to lower emissions?" Jeff Mason of Reuters asked Biden on Sunday at the conclusion of the latest G20 meeting in Rome.

Biden acknowledged that "on the surface, it seems like an irony," before arguing that "the truth of the matter is... that the idea we're going to be able to move to renewable energy overnight and not have—from this moment on, not use oil or not use gas or not use hydrogen is just not rational."

Biden's attempt to pressure the 13 member nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries plus oil-rich allies such as Russia (OPEC+) to increase production—which the president said is "not at all inconsistent" with long-term decarbonization goals—came just three weeks after the International Energy Agency reiterated its message that expanding fossil fuel extraction is incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

His move also came the same day the World Meteorological Organization warned that despite the effect of a temporary cooling "La Niña" event early in the year, 2021 is expected to be between the fifth and seventh warmest year on record, which would make the past seven years the seven hottest in modern history.

In addition, the United Nations Environment Program published a pair of reports last month showing that the worldwide transition to renewable energy is far behind schedule—with fossil fuel use projected to increase this decade even as annual reductions in coal, oil, and gas production are necessary—and that the planet is on pace for a "catastrophic" 2.7°C of heating this century unless countries, beginning with the wealthy ones most responsible for causing the crisis, rapidly and drastically slash greenhouse gas emissions.

During COP26, Denmark and Costa Rica plan to "launch the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance of countries committed to ending new oil and gas exploration," noted David Tong, a senior campaigner at Oil Change International.

"Meanwhile, he added, "the U.S. is running backwards."

According to Javier Blas, chief energy correspondent at Bloomberg News, a senior Biden administration official told reporters on Sunday that the White House has reached out to "the world's key energy consumers" about possible next steps if the oil-producing cartel refuses to bend to the will of the U.S.

This isn't the first time the Biden administration has tried to pressure OPEC+ to boost production.

In August, just two days after Biden responded to a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about how carbon pollution is intensifying extreme weather by saying, "We can't wait to tackle the climate crisis," White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan claimed that the existing plan of OPEC+ to gradually offset pandemic-induced cuts to oil production was inadequate, and he blamed constrained supply for rising gasoline prices.

Moreover, Sullivan said, higher costs at the pump "risk harming the ongoing global recovery" from the coronavirus crisis and must be addressed swiftly by ramping up oil production.

Progressive critics at the time were quick to point out the glaring discrepancy between Biden's professed commitment to climate action and his administration's prioritization of securing access to cheap gas, and reporters continued to press the president about it on Sunday.

Jim Tankersley of the New York Times asked Biden, "Why not allow even middle-class people around the world to pay more for gasoline in the hope that they would consume fewer fossil fuels and emit less?"

To which Biden responded: "Because they have to get to their work. They have to get in an automobile, turn on the key, get their kids to school. The school buses have to run. That's the reason why."

"The idea that we can—that there's an alternative to walk away from being able to get in your automobile is just not realistic; it's not going to happen," the president added. "And, by the way, when... the cost of a gallon of gasoline gets to above...$3.35 a gallon, it has [a] profound impact on working-class families just to get back and forth to work."

While it is true that higher energy costs adversely affect working-class households, Biden's suggestion that the only viable solution is to increase oil supply is misleading, according to progressive critics.

As political economist and Green New Deal proponent Robert Pollin explained in a recent interview, the federal government has the capacity to subsidize energy costs to guarantee affordability for low-income households—not only when it comes to transportation, but also with respect to heating.

With energy prices expected to skyrocket this winter, Pollin argued that congressional lawmakers should make it a priority to keep expenses low for working families—not by strong-arming OPEC+ into boosting oil supply but by providing rebates that will help people "absorb the increased cost of energy."

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