As the saying goes, ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do to lower your gas prices.
Wait — I’m not sure that was it. I wasn’t born yet when a sepia-toned former president was said to have stirringly called on Americans to “pay any price, bear any burden” to assure the survival of liberty.
But today, “pay any price” sure seems to mean “but no more than $4.25 a gallon.”
With all the squealing about the prospect of higher gas prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you’d think Americans had been conscripted to man the ramparts alongside Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the bunkers of Kyiv.
It’s been frustrating to sit idly by watching Russia obliterate a democracy on TV, like a newsreel from the 1940s. We’re not going to intervene in the fight, so the constant nagging question is: What else can we do?
It seems even the small step of banning Russian oil imports to the U.S. is butting up against the most American of all American things — our addiction to it.
“This is the one key piece of the Russian economy that we haven’t gone after,” says Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, who was an early proponent of hitting petro-state Russia where it might hurt the most.
“If we are really standing with Ukraine … if we are going to do maximum sanctions, then banning Russian oil, that’s the step to take,” said Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I’m not willing to risk World War III. I am willing to risk that we have to pay slightly higher gas prices.”
Are we down for that last part, though, because … well, it’s an election year.
“That would raise prices at the gas pump for Americans,” one White House spokesperson demurred, pushing back on barring Russian oil.
Said another: “The president is trying to insulate the American citizen, the American consumer, from suffering too much.”
Based on what Russia is doing, we shouldn’t be buying anything from that country right now, especially if it props up the country’s war machine. But given the state of the world and the environment generally, it’s startling that the U.S. has been consuming more than half a million gallons of oil a day from Russia in the first place.
This seems like a moment to slap back against a war criminal, yes, but also to mobilize against our own addiction to oil.
“The best way to weaken Putin’s grip on the global energy market is to get America off of fossil fuels,” says Jamal Raad, of Evergreen Action, a new Seattle-based group pushing for more action on climate change.
Obviously we’re not going to get off the stuff quickly or completely, but Russian oil is less than 5% of our daily fix. Smith says we could replace that short term with imports from other countries, or from our own supply.
Banning Russian oil seems like the minimum we could do to back the moral clarity of the Ukrainians. It makes a heck of a lot more sense than pouring Russian vodka down the drain, as some bars have been doing.
Why not seize the crisis to try to make some longer-term changes in our gas-guzzling ways?
The Washington Legislature for example just killed off Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to grant rebates of up to $7,500 for buying an electric car. His initial intent was to speed up the transition to electric vehicles to try to slash carbon emissions. Well now there’s a more powerful and immediate reason — a war that’s expected to send gas prices north of $5 a gallon in the coming months.
State lawmakers should take another look at those electric rebates. There is a federal rebate for electric cars, but Congress should consider U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s idea for a rebate for trading in your old gas car for an electric one — sort of a green twist on the “cash for clunkers” program of the past.
While President Joe Biden waffles because his poll numbers are low, Republicans are going full-throated “drill, baby, drill.” They’ve joined the push for a ban on Russian oil, yet will almost certainly blame Democrats when gas prices rise more, even as the oil companies are booking record profits.
This has a good chance of working, politically speaking. Why? See the part of this column above about our insatiable fossil-fuel addiction.
The war in Ukraine has been disorienting, a shock to modernity. The grinding of tanks in Eastern Europe is a throwback to a bleak time that seemed permanently faded into bad memories. It’s archaic to the point of seeming unreal.
We can’t answer a war waged by a fossil-fuel autocrat by going retrograde ourselves. It’s a case for a new energy future — for us to be the opposite of, and therefore independent from, Russia in every way conceivable.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.