Will Biden use the debate to brag about record oil production?

By Timothy Cama, Garrett Downs, Nicole Norman | 06/26/2024 07:02 AM EDT

The president could point to all-time highs for U.S. fossil fuel drilling on his watch, but he risks alienating his progressive base.

President Joe Biden.

President Joe Biden during a meeting at the White House in May. He's scheduled to debate former President Donald Trump this week. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The U.S. is shattering records for oil and gas production under President Joe Biden, but he might not want to say that in Thursday’s high-stakes debate with Donald Trump.

When Biden and the Republican former president face off in the first of two scheduled debates between the White House contenders, Biden will be in a pickle.

Bragging about his record fossil fuel production could turn off climate voters, a key bloc in the Democratic base. Not doing so might leave him vulnerable with independents concerned with high prices.


The dynamic could force Biden, who has made fighting climate change a pillar of his second-term pitch, to walk a rhetorical tightrope.

“I think it’s hard to campaign on a green agenda while touting oil production peaks,” said Kevin Book, a prominent energy consultant who helps run the nonpartisan research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

“I don’t think the Biden administration or the Biden campaign is likely to lead with record oil production,” he said. “It seems like more of a defensive riposte than an offensive strike.”

In stump speeches, Trump has regularly launched assaults on high prices at the pump, often with wildly inflated figures. He has spoken about creating U.S. energy “dominance” and bewailed a “war on American energy.” In a recent visit with congressional Republicans, he promised to “drill, baby, drill.” It’s a good chance he’ll bring the matter up in the debate.

Some of Biden’s allies say there’s a way for the president to ward off such attacks and go on offense on gasoline prices without alienating climate voters: Blame Big Oil.

“If the price of gasoline comes up in my debate back home, I’m going to blame who should be blamed — which is the big oil companies,” said Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, an endangered Democrat who will appear on the ballot with Biden this year. “And we should tax their excess profits, that’s what we should do.”

Indeed, Democrats and the Biden campaign have been escalating their attacks on the oil industry. How far they’ll take it and whether that’s a winning strategy remains to be seen.

‘Liquid gold’

Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Then-President Donald Trump debating then-Democratic presidential nominee Biden in 2020. | Brendan Smialowski and Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Gasoline prices have been a thorn in the side for Biden for nearly his entire presidency. Matters were most dire in 2022 when, ahead of the midterm elections, the national average price hit $4.84 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Since then, prices have fallen. In recent weeks they’ve declined further, bucking the usual trend of higher summer prices from travel and additives that refiners must put into the fuel.

U.S. crude oil production has risen most months since Biden took office and averaged 13.2 million barrels per day in March, the most recent month for which EIA has data — higher than any month under Trump. The nation hit a monthly record of 13.3 million barrels a day in November.

Nonetheless, congressional Republicans and Trump have blamed Biden for slashing oil drilling and skyrocketing prices. Trump has promised to take immediate action on his first day in office to boost oil and gas drilling and has slammed Biden for not extracting more of it.

“We have more liquid gold than any other country in the world — Russia, Saudi Arabia. Remember this: We were energy independent four years ago. We were soon going to be energy dominant,” he said at a rally this month in Las Vegas.

Trump frequently compares gas prices under Biden with cheap prices achieved under his presidency. That milestone, however, was reached at the peak of the Covid-19-caused recession, when oil prices cratered.

“You had low energy. You had energy at $1.87. Now it’s up to almost $4 again and it’s going up higher. In California, it’s just hit $7.21 today,” he said at a New Jersey rally in May.

Trump frequently accuses Biden of a “war on American energy” and said in a March speech in Ohio that his successor “closed up the oil.”

It’s true that Biden campaigned on a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. And in his first weeks in office, he instituted a pause on all new oil and gas lease sales, citing climate change.

But a federal court overturned that order, forcing the administration to conduct some sales. While new leasing has slowed, drilling is still far above average.

Still, by holding smaller and less frequent auctions, the White House is trying to shrink the industry’s future footprint, according to frustrated Republicans.

The Trump administration leased more than 2 million acres to drillers in fiscal 2019. Last year, Biden leased less than 100,000 acres.

In January, the administration instituted a pause on approval of new liquefied natural gas export facilities, further angering Republicans.

“We’re going to terminate the Green New Scam. We’re going to drill, baby, drill. We’re going to get our energy way down,” Trump said.

Progressives weigh in

Some Biden allies say his drilling record may insulate him from blame over high gasoline prices and help set the record straight in the face of Republican attacks.

“Clearly, there is a disconnect between production and gas prices,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, a top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “We’re at record levels of production and yet gas prices are high, and it would be wise for [Biden] to make that point.”

But environmental activists and progressives in Congress say embracing increases in oil production — even if it’s to rebut Trump and attract independents — might turn off those people motivated by climate action.

“What we need from Biden is to actually tackle the power of Big Oil, to hold Big Oil accountable for price gouging, for lying to the public,” said Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager with environmental group Friends of the Earth.

The strategy from Casey, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, may carry extra weight with Biden. To craft his campaign message, the president has leaned heavily on incumbent senators from must-win Rust Belt states who are regularly outpacing him in public polling.

Casey, for instance, got the only positive name-drop of Biden’s 2024 State of the Union address after pressing Biden to incorporate “shrinkflation” into his economic messaging. The phrase featured prominently throughout the speech, and Biden has worked it into dozens of his recent public appearances.

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, who sponsored the Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), also wants to see Biden take on Big Oil rather than embrace it.

“It’s time to close our oil-soaked tab, stop Big Oil from profiteering on expensive energy and instead invest in a clean energy future,” Markey said.

Trump is said to have asked oil executives for $1 billion in campaign support during a meeting this year. The American Petroleum Institute defended the session as routine.

Several groups last week asked debate moderators to bring up the issue. Environmentalists are also pressuring moderators to ask about climate change.

Congressional Democrats have launched inquiries into the meeting and claims of industry collusion to keep energy prices high. It’s an accusation that resurfaces during times of high energy prices and that oil and gas interests have long denied.

A Biden campaign official who was granted anonymity to speak candidly said Democrats are indeed coalescing around blaming the oil industry but did not detail how far they’ll take the issue.

Scott Lauermann, a spokesperson for API, dismissed the effort earlier this month. “American voters are looking for solutions to help alleviate rising costs and persistent inflation, not election-year stunts that distract from America’s need for more affordable and reliable energy,” said Lauermann.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of the Senate’s most prominent progressives, urged Biden to tie Trump directly to Big Oil.

“Donald Trump is putting the American economy on the auction block for a handful of billionaire corporations,” Warren said. “And I hope Joe Biden will point that out every five minutes.”

Reporters Emma Dumain and Heather Richards contributed.