President Biden, the Keystone XL Pipeline, and High Gas Prices

by John Ellis

At the gas station I frequent most often, some of the pumps have been adorned by a sticker with President Biden proudly pointing while saying, “I did that.” Situated so that Biden is gesturing towards the panel displaying how much the customer’s total cost is, the message is clear: President Biden is to blame for the pain the high gas prices are inflicting on your budget. Except, it’s not true – not really.

Narrative is the key word here. How facts are plugged in and shaped (and reshaped), not to mention which facts to include and exclude, are the tools that competing interests use to shape a narrative that their intended audience will find compelling. And narrative shaping is important. It steers us into our presuppositions (many of which we are unaware of) and feeds our expressive individualistic definition of flourishing.  

We – as in, humans – are narrative creatures. We are walking stories set within a (the) larger Story. This is why narratives (stories) are so important. Ergo, narrative shaping is important. Think of it this way: whoever tells the best story wins. And it’s an epistemological circle. The best story for me is the one that confirms the story I already use to interpret the world (as a side note: this is why deconstruction can be a valuable tool – it can help uncover our unconscious biases and presuppositions).

With that in mind, I’m going to offer two facts about the current high price of gas. I will then provide a little expository on those facts alongside limited interpretations. That will be followed by an introduction of three other facts which should (maybe) be a part of the narrative shaping for all of us. I do so with the acknowledgement that I am neither an expert in energy nor economics. Frankly, most of the pundits and politicians that are currently shaping the narrative aren’t experts either. That being said, pointing to my lack of expertise as the reason why my arguments in this article should be ignored or dismissed is a logical fallacy (there, I said it out loud).  

Here are my two facts: 1. President Biden halting construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline has no bearing on current levels of oil supply. 2. The part of the Keystone Pipeline that is currently operating is ill-suited for providing an answer for high gas prices.

Over the last month or so, I’ve heard and read the argument that President Biden closing the Keystone Pipeline is one of the main causes (if not the main cause) for high gas prices. Well, Biden didn’t close it. The part that was already in operation is still in operation. Around 590,000 barrels of oil from Canada are being transported to refineries in this country. The part of the pipeline – Keystone XL – that Biden halted construction on wasn’t going to be operational until late 2023, at best. Biden’s actions have not affected the current quantity of oil this country receives. If you want to argue that his actions will negatively affect future oil supplies in the U.S. of A., you’re still wrong, but I’ll cover that when I get to fact #2.

Now, in their most honest moments, Republicans acknowledge that Keystone XL wasn’t operational when Biden stopped construction on it. However, they follow that up with the accusation, “Well, if Obama hadn’t stopped construction and Biden hadn’t stopped construction, it would be really close to being completed.” To that, I say, “Close only works in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Besides, factoring in fact #2 means it wouldn’t make much of a difference to current gas prices if the entire Keystone Pipeline project was finished and fully operational. With that in mind, let’s look at fact #2.

The Keystone Pipeline’s objective is to transport oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S. That’s a fact. Let’s (truthfully) shape it a bit.

97% of Canada’s oil reserves are from oil sands. This means that extracting and refining oil from Canada is very expensive – VERY. If this country depended on our friendly neighbor to the north for any substantial amount of our oil, we’d have to get used to high gas prices at the pump in perpetuity (or until someone invented a cheap way to extract and clean oil from Canada’s oil sands). Now, that bit of (truthful) shaping leaves out the fact that the oil flowing through the part of the Keystone Pipeline that is finished (as well as what was supposed to eventually flow through the part that isn’t finished) isn’t for the U.S. market to begin with. Again, we – you and I – don’t want oil from Canada. Unless, of course, and in this case, I apologize for speaking for you, paying high prices at the gas pump is something you enjoy.

I understand (and freely acknowledge) that my narrative shaping lacks nuance, doesn’t contain a fleshed out understanding of the intricacies of the global markets, and doesn’t put forward well-thought out policy positions. None of those things are part of my objective with this article. My goal, as already stated, is to provide some alternative narrative shaping via facts that is absent from what many of my friends and family are being fed by their preferred source of news and favorite politicians. What they’re being told is intended to further a narrative they’ve already bought. I want to open at least a few small gaps in that narrative as a way to encourage the beginning of the process of deconstructing narratives. Before I conclude, though, I promised three alternate facts. I’m going to give them without expounding on them (mostly, minus a footnote).

Three alternative facts through which we should view high gas prices: 1. Donald Trump’s poorly executed trade war with China[1]. 2. The global pandemic’s effects on markets as well as on the supply line. 3. The effects Putin’s sinful war on the Ukraine is having on the supply of oil to the global market.

It should also be noted that President Biden is readying to announce the release of up to 180 million barrels of oil from the U.S.’s oil reserve into the world’s market. After the news leaked last night, the price of oil began to drop. I’m curious, although I already know the answer, if President Biden’s actions succeed in working in driving down the price of fuel, will the stickers with him taking credit remain on the gas pumps?  However, and that rhetorical question aside, the fact that many experts are skeptical about Biden’s plan changing long term market conditions speaks to the complexities of inflation. It’s much easier to blame the other side than to acknowledge those complexities, though.

[1] One of the sad yet amusing ironies in this is that many of my (openly) professed capitalist-loving family and friends have swallowed wholesale Trump’s desired return to mercantilism. It’s like claiming to be a Lakers fan while rooting for the Clippers.

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