The Guardian view on Biden’s risky gamble: betting on lowering oil prices

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Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia this month highlights the paradox of American power. The US has the economic heft to punish an opponent – but not enough to alter the behaviour of a determined adversary. Sanctions will see Russia’s economy contract by 9% next year. But Washington needs more nations to join its camp to halt Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Mr Biden has been forced to prioritise war objectives over ethics in meeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA says ordered the barbaric murder of the prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The havoc that Russia’s war has caused on the world’s energy markets is contributing to an economic crisis that is playing into the hands of Mr Biden’s domestic opponents. This highlights the west’s failure to confront the climate emergency with a less carbon-intensive economic model. The green agenda risks being derailed by sky-high hydrocarbon prices. This scenario could have been averted if western nations had accelerated their net zero agendas by driving down energy demand – the lack of UK home insulation is one glaring failure – and spending on renewables to achieve energy security. Instead, this week the G7 watered down pledges to halt fossil fuel investment over fears of winter energy shortages as Moscow squeezes supplies.

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Boycotts and bans against Russia, even as they take a toll on the global economy, will cause ordinary Russians hardship. But this has not moved Vladimir Putin. Soaring crude prices fuel Moscow’s war machine. A price cap on Russia’s petroleum exports might choke off the cash. But a concern is that China and India will buy Mr Putin’s oil at a price that still lets the Kremlin profit. Clever technical solutions mask hard choices. Sanctions drive up energy prices for consumers unless there are alternative supplies available. Right now, to bring down oil prices means producing more planet-destroying energy. That requires US engagement with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which bear responsibility for the disastrous Yemen war. Washington might have to woo Venezuela and Iran, nations which will play Moscow off against the west.

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The US is pursuing a three-pronged strategy: increasing pressure on Russia; getting more oil into markets to bring prices down; and allowing central banks to raise interest rates to levels that look as if they might cause a recession. The latter is designed to signal to oil producers that energy prices will collapse. The painful recessions of the 1970s and early 1980s played a part in bringing down oil prices after energy shocks – and contributed to the Soviet Union’s disintegration. But this took 15 years. Mr Putin’s Russia may not be as powerful as its forerunner. It might be more brittle than the Soviet Union. But there are few signs of imminent collapse.

As the west seeks to reduce its reliance on Russian hydrocarbons, there seems to be a global “gold rush” for new fossil fuel projects defended as temporary supply measures. The risk, with the US as the largest hydrocarbon producer, is that the world becomes locked into an irreversible climate catastrophe. Europe might become as reliant on US gas as it once was on Russian gas. Donald Trump proved America could be an unreliable ally. Rightwing supreme court justices have hobbled Mr Biden’s power to limit harmful emissions. Meanwhile, China has emerged as a world leader in renewable energy as well as the metals on which it depends. Mr Biden had wanted to transition the US away from oil. Yet during his time in office the sector’s market value has doubled because prices have risen. Jarringly, as the climate emergency grows ever more urgent, fossil fuel appears the pivot on which the war in Ukraine will turn.

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