White House blasts 'backwards' Republican proposal on Strategic Petroleum Reserve

A person prepares to pump gas
Pumping gas in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday sharply criticized what it called a “backwards” bill introduced by House Republicans that would limit presidential authority to tap the national Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which President Biden has done repeatedly in an effort to bring down gas prices.

Known as the Strategic Production Response Act, the bill was introduced earlier this week by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., to prevent the president from releasing any oil from the reserve (except in case of a carefully defined “severe energy supply interruption”) unless the president at the same time opens up more federal lands to oil and gas drilling — something Republicans have sharply criticized Biden for resisting.

“To cover up his failed policies driving our energy and inflation crisis, President Biden is draining our nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves at an alarming rate,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement about another, related proposal — which would prohibit the sale of oil from the reserve to China — that passed the House on Thursday.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

The White House, which spent much of 2022 fending off criticisms from Republicans — and some Democrats — that it was not doing enough to address the cost of gas, appeared eager to engage on this familiar political battleground in 2023.

“It’s absolutely backwards for House Republicans to keep putting wealthy special interests ahead of middle-class families in this way,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates told Yahoo News. “They’re attempting to hike gas prices and neuter one of the best tools we have to deliver Americans relief from global oil spikes in the future, all to help Big Oil as they make record profits.”

In October, Biden announced a release of 15 million barrels of crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Republicans immediately criticized the move, though they had not objected when President Donald Trump did the same thing in 2019.

Pointing out that oil companies are enjoying tens of billions of dollars in annual profits, Biden accused them of restricting supply instead of easing price pressures on consumers.

(Some disagreed with the president’s charge, describing it as unfair.)

President Biden
President Biden delivering remarks on the economy and inflation in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Thursday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The president also argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had constrained the world’s energy supply, leading to global price increases that had nothing to do with his policies. The price of oil shot up by $34 per barrel in the weeks following Russia’s invasion in late February 2022, in what the White House took to describing as “Putin’s price hike.”

Recent months have brought the SPR to its lowest level — 450 million barrels — since the 1980s. The White House has argued that its drawdowns were necessary to help Americans who were paying more than $5 per gallon in parts of the country. Prices have plummeted, but deep disagreements over energy policy remain.

Most energy experts point out that oil prices are set by the forces of global supply and demand, which are beyond Washington’s control. And even if the pace of leasing on federal land were accelerated, developing wells would take far too long to help consumers anytime soon.

“The [oil] exploration activities in these [federal] areas are marginal,” Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy watchdog, told Yahoo News last February. “They’re not going to have an appreciable impact on domestic or global supply-demand balances.”

Instead, many industry analysts say, the only path to protecting consumers from oil supply shocks is to switch to electric vehicles and renewable energy.

A bank of electric car chargers
A bank of electric car chargers. (Getty Images)

Always eager to draw a contrast with what the president has described as a pro-Trump or “MAGA” faction of the GOP, the White House blasted the bill as evidence that House Republicans are not serious about the business of governing.

Under a court order, the president did allow for new leases on federal lands last year. Still, Republicans remain convinced that he wants to do away with fossil fuels and transition to an economy entirely reliant on renewable sources of energy like wind and solar.

They have also indicated they would like to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed last year and includes $370 billion for clean energy initiatives, by far the biggest such federal investment to date.

The GOP’s first vote this week was to nullify a portion of the IRA that increases funding for the Internal Revenue Service.

The coming months are all but certain to see investigation of the president’s family, his handling of classified records and his administration’s record throughout the last two years. The White House is already moving to counter those investigations and to highlight its own efforts at bipartisanship.

McMorris Rodgers, who is the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also introduced H.R. 22, which would ban the sale of oil from the petroleum reserve to China.

Strategic Petroleum Reserve storage in Freeport, Texas
A Strategic Petroleum Reserve storage facility in Freeport, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

“Let's pass H.R. 22 and prevent the Biden administration from wasting our strategic reserves. It's the first step towards flipping the switch and unleashing American energy production,” she tweeted on Thursday morning, ahead of the measure’s relatively narrow but expected passage.

Some oil from the reserve has been exported overseas, because the Department of Energy is mandated to accept the highest bid for each offering.

Although neither McMorris Rodgers’s bill nor an Inflation Reduction Act repeal stands any chance of becoming law, since the Senate remains in Democratic control, the proposals are a likely preview of dynamics in Washington for the next two years, with Republicans introducing legislation to undo or prevent Biden’s achievements and the White House blasting those Republicans as obstructionists and extremists.

Bates, the White House spokesman, told Yahoo News it was telling, in the White House’s view, that the Republicans' first vote after gaining control of the lower congressional chamber was “a massive tax welfare for rich tax cheats at the expense of everyone else,” a reference to the IRS-defunding measure.

More such legislative efforts are on their way, especially since the crucial House Rules Committee — which acts as a kind of legislative traffic control officer — is now largely beholden to the same MAGA forces that Biden relishes in confronting.