A menacing gas pump glares at a crying person trying to purchase expensive gas.
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Transportation is a key component of Americans’ daily lives. Of the 84.6% of Americans licensed to drive, the average travels a distance of 13,474 miles per year, or slightly over half the circumference of planet Earth. This half-globe journey ends up costing Americans $1,262 per year in gas and affects the vast majority of drivers since less than 1% of the cars on the road are electric.

With gas costs normally accounting for up to 3.12% of the average American’s monthly income, many of us have become easily irritated at the ever-fluctuating and sky high prices we’ve recently seen at the pump. As of June 2022, gas prices are up an alarming 61% compared to one year ago.

Our irritation with these prices often leads to a search for scapegoats, which in this case is largely Russian President Vladmir Putin, President Joe Biden and oil companies. According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll from April 2022, 71% of Americans blame Putin for the current state of our gas prices, 51% blame Biden and 68% blame oil companies. Only 20% of respondents consider Biden to be blameless. Despite this tendency to pinpoint blame, an issue as multifaceted as gas prices cannot be watered down to one sole cause.

There are a couple factors that play into the obnoxious number you see on the meter. Even though we are turning toward a greater state of normalcy, the effects of COVID-19 have lingered. Oil producers were not prepared for the somewhat sudden reopening of the economy, and the increased number of people driving around again. This change led to a high demand for gas paired with a low supply of it — a basic economic concept which explains the rise in gas prices. The pandemic’s influence evidently goes much deeper than the death toll and health consequences — it impacts our economic, social and political landscape as well.

Building on that, the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused many countries, including the United States, to place a ban on Russian oil imports. Without Russia as a source for oil imports, oil prices have increased globally — a trend likely to continue. Due to this affliction, Biden has promised to do all he can to help American citizens and minimize negative impacts; for example, he released a record amount of oil from the nation’s emergency oil reserve in an effort to curb the pain of elevated gas prices.

There are logistical struggles to ramping up oil production, including a lack of infrastructure within the industry as well as a reluctance to increase production during the transition period to cleaner energy. Plus, even with the generous increase of a couple hundred thousand additional barrels of oil per day from the oil reserve, this barely makes a dent in the 100 million barrels of oil produced each day globally. 

With all of these contributing factors, it seems unfair to place complete blame on Biden. However, this is not to say he is flawless — he directly impacted our oil prices by canceling the permit for the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline. For those unfamiliar, the Keystone XL pipeline would have been a 1,200-mile pipeline transfering 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to the United States. Biden chose to cancel the permit for this pipeline and take a stance with environmentalists, Native American tribes and landowners in the affected area — likely a personal and political party-related choice, since only 17% of Democrats favor the pipeline as of 2017.

Since his inauguration, Biden has taken on a bold agenda regarding climate change and proven himself to be a strong advocate for a clean energy revolution. He stands by his statement that climate change is the “number one issue facing humanity.” It seems, however, that his tight environmental stance has loosened a bit since then, as he is pumping a record amount of oil out of the emergency reserve in order to ease the brunt of the high gas prices. Consequently, it appears that with enough pressure and pain on American citizens, even Biden and his ambitious climate change plan will crack.

With all this in mind, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm notes even the most powerful person on the planet has limited influence on gas prices. Americans tend to link politics with economics, but this explanation for our misfortunes falls short. Presidents and leaders often take blame for the economy as a whole, not because they are deserving of those attributions, but because they are an identifiable name and face. People desire concrete answers to complex issues; for this reason, our presidents become the easiest target for explanations of various events. 

Despite Americans’ dismay, there is a silver lining to everything. The increased expense of oil as an energy source may push users in the direction of using alternative energy sources or scaling back on gasoline usage, thus fighting pollution and working toward a better future environmentally. Not to mention, one factor contributing to these increased prices is the cost of supporting the freedom and safety of the Ukrainian people. Despite our antipathy, the prices are a pain we must bear to stand in solidarity with a nation in need of our help. With that in mind, I am hopeful we all feel a bit less contempt toward the raised prices.

As with previous spikes in gas prices, this period of heightened gas prices will pass. In the meantime, I encourage you to remain optimistic and be cautious in placing blame on one person or entity, given that this issue stems from many different roots. By accepting that the factors playing into this situation are out of any singular person’s control, we can also accept that solutions and relief will come with time.

Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at annatrup@umich.edu.