As Gas Prices Surge, Biden Asks FTC to Investigate ‘Illegal Conduct’

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Biden Highlights Electric Vehicles While Asking for Inquiry Into High Gas Prices

President Biden on Wednesday toured a General Motors plant in Detroit that produces electric vehicles.
President Biden on Wednesday toured a General Motors plant in Detroit that produces electric vehicles.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
  • Nov. 17, 2021Updated 7:14 p.m. ET

DETROIT — President Biden on Wednesday helped christen a General Motors factory that manufactures electric vehicles, zipping around in a battery-powered Hummer to highlight a transition to energy-efficient cars and trucks that the president hopes his $1 trillion infrastructure law will accelerate.

But the visit came on a day when Mr. Biden was dealing with a more immediate problem — surging gas prices. Before he left for Michigan, the president asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether oil and gas companies were engaging in “illegal conduct” that was driving up prices at the pump.

Mr. Biden toured G.M.’s “Factory Zero,” watching workers bolt a 3,000-pound battery into the body of a white Hummer truck and then taking one for a spin in a lot behind the plant.

“These suckers are something else,” he said after the drive.

In a speech at the plant, Mr. Biden said it was an economic and environmental necessity that the United States lead the world in electric vehicle production. “We’re going to make sure that these jobs end up in Michigan,” he said, “not halfway around the world.”

The split screen of what Mr. Biden calls America’s future and the immediate political pain of high gas prices showcased just how far the United States has to go to catch up to its rivals in the race for low-emission vehicles and how dependent it remains on fossil fuels.

Soaring gas prices, driven upward by an OPEC choke on production and renewed driving activity as commuters and tourists return from a pandemic hiatus, have dented Americans’ views of the economy and helped fuel an acceleration of inflation that has jeopardized part of Mr. Biden’s economic agenda in Congress.

The average gallon of gas was nearly $3.40 in the United States on Monday, according to the Energy Information Administration, its highest price in seven years.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden asked the Federal Trade Commission to consider whether large oil and gas companies were artificially pushing up gasoline prices for American consumers, the administration’s latest effort to target concentration in the energy industry in a bid to bring down costs.

The move is unlikely to spur immediate action by the F.T.C., which has the power to break up large industry players, and it is unlikely to affect gasoline prices materially anytime soon. But it could prompt the commission to open an investigation to gather data on how companies set gasoline prices, which could be used in future enforcement actions.

Mr. Biden’s letter to Lina Khan, the antitrust champion he appointed as the commission’s chair, claims “mounting evidence of anti-consumer behavior by oil and gas companies.” The president noted that prices at the pump had risen even as the costs of refined fuel had fallen and industry profits had risen. The two largest players in the industry, Exxon Mobil and Chevron, have doubled their net income since 2019, he wrote, while announcing billions of dollars in plans to issue dividends and buy back stock.

“The F.T.C. is concerned about this issue, and we are looking into it,” Lindsay Kryzak, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement.

Rising gas prices have long been a political problem for presidents, who are often blamed for increases that are largely out of their control.

The liberal polling group Data for Progress released a memo on Wednesday showing that increased voter disapproval of Mr. Biden “strongly correlates” with the rise in gas prices over the summer and the fall. The memo contended that higher pump prices have overpowered other economic improvements that should be lifting the president, like a strengthening job market and strong wage growth for low-paid and middle-class workers. The group cheered the F.T.C. request while urging Mr. Biden to “consider executive prescriptions in the short term that remedy the recent rise of retail gas prices to a reasonable degree.”

Administration officials pointed the finger at oil companies. Chris Meagher, a deputy White House press secretary, told reporters on Air Force One that drivers would be paying as much as 25 cents less per gallon if the gap between refined fuel costs and gasoline prices at the pump were to return to normal prepandemic levels.

The increase of about $1 per gallon since Mr. Biden took office has pinned the president between his goals of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and keeping costs low for middle-class consumers.

Mr. Biden refused to include an increase in the federal gasoline tax to offset the spending in his infrastructure negotiations with Republicans, while insisting that the agreement include $7.5 billion to build what the White House says will be as many as 500,000 electric charging stations nationwide. The infrastructure law also includes $7.5 billion to help bolster supply chains that feed electric vehicles and $5 billion for electric buses.

“It’s going to take us between now and 2030 to have half the vehicles in America electric vehicles,” Mr. Biden said during a news conference in Rome last month after a meeting where he pushed global oil producers to pump more to bring prices down. “So, the idea we’re not going to need gasoline for automobiles is just not realistic.”

When the cost of gasoline tops $3.35 a gallon, he added, “it has profound impact on working-class families just to get back and forth to work.”

Electrifying the transportation sector looms as a critical step for wealthy nations like the United States as they try to reduce fossil fuel use and avert catastrophic global temperature increases. Over time, moving to a more heavily electric vehicle fleet will also reduce demand for gasoline — and with it, prices.

But the United States lags far behind Europe and China in its adoption of electric cars. Battery-powered vehicles accounted for fewer than 3 percent of new registrations in the United States this year, compared with 9 percent in the European Union and 10 percent in China.

One reason for the slow uptake in the United States is a lack of places to recharge. There are 45,000 public charging stations in the country, according to the Energy Department. The European Union, with less than half the land area of the United States, has five times as many.

Electric vehicle sales have been growing quickly in the United States despite less of a push from the government, nearly doubling compared to last year even as sales of gasoline-powered vehicles slumped. Tesla dominates the U.S. market, accounting for well over half of electric vehicle sales. But traditional automakers are gaining share with models like the Ford Mustang Mach-E, the Chevrolet Bolt and the Volkswagen ID.4.

Electric vehicles have implications for the United States’ rivalry with China. Beijing hopes to exploit the shift to electric transportation to become a major auto exporter. Chinese automakers like SAIC Motor have been moving aggressively into Europe and are expected to target the United States. The more cars they sell, the more experience they accumulate with the new technology, which they can apply to make better products.

Mr. Biden is pushing Congress to do more to incentivize the electric shift. The $1.85 trillion collection of spending programs and tax cuts that Democrats hope to push through the House this week includes billions of dollars in loans and grants to further support electric vehicle manufacturing. It would expand tax credits for buying electric vehicles to as much as $12,500 each, offering more for union-made cars and trucks built in America.

The president has repeatedly championed electric vehicles in person. Mr. Biden this spring visited a Ford factory that manufactures an all-electric version of the F-150 pickup truck, which the president also took for a spin. G.M. has said it will go all electric by 2035. Ford has announced $30 billion in investments in electrification and said it will go zero emissions worldwide by 2040. White House officials said on Wednesday that automakers had now committed $70 billion to electric vehicle manufacturing in the United States.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden met with autoworkers and the chief executive of G.M., Mary Barra, and marveled at the steering radius and top speed of the Hummer. In a grand-opening ceremony for the plant, Ms. Barra said the spending bill Mr. Biden was championing in Congress would put America “on an irreversible path to a zero-emissions future.”

The president opened his remarks by highlighting new research suggesting that his spending bill would not add to rising prices across the country, but he quickly pivoted back to geeking out about cars.

“God, it’s good to be back in Detroit,” Mr. Biden told the crowd. “And that Hummer: one hell of a vehicle.”

Jack Ewing contributed reporting from New York.

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