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Biden gets a break on oil and gas prices

·Senior Columnist
·4 min read
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One month ago, gas prices—up 50% during the last year—were looking like the bane of Joe Biden’s presidency. Then three things happened:

Combined, these developments have shaved oil prices by more than 20% since late October. Gas prices haven’t yet fallen by the same amount, but they most likely will. Gas prices lag oil prices whether going up or down, but only by a few weeks, as the following chart shows. So gas prices should be dropping by the end of the year. There's already been a drop in wholesale gasoline prices, which Moody's Analytics thinks could send retail prices down to nearly $3 soon.

A month ago, these price declines seemed unlikely. The 50 million barrels coming into the market from the U.S. reserve during the next couple of months actually isn’t much. Daily global consumption is nearly 100 million barrels per day, so the new U.S. supply is barely one-half of one day’s consumption. The allied nations providing oil from their own reserves have far less to contribute.

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Over the summer, Biden asked the OPEC+ nations to significantly boost production. They declined, agreeing only to a marginal increase of 400,000 per day—a supply boost of less than one-half of 1%. Biden’s oil release was an affront to those oil-producing nations, which want to keep prices elevated after the Covid pandemic sent oil prices plunging. Some analysts though OPEC+ would announce a cut in production at its next monthly meeting on Dec. 2, as a kind of retaliation against the US action.

Instead, OPEC+ said it still plans to increase output by 400,000 barrels per day. “The decision comes as as big surprise,” Eurasia Group analysts reported on Dec. 2. “The move goes against the interests of OPEC+, which has spent the last 18 months trying to draw down global fuel inventories, which rose to record levels amid global lockdowns early in the pandemic.”

Eurasia Group speculates that pressure from the Biden administration and from China—the world’s biggest energy importer—played a role in the OPEC+ decision. Whatever the motivation, global oil reserves now seem likely to rise into 2022, with prices falling.

The rest of next year is highly uncertain. Omicron concerns have had the biggest impact on oil prices, with investors now betting on several months more of suppressed economic activity and the usual declines in commodity prices. If current vaccines are considerably weaker against Omicron, that could portend an open-ended whack-a-mole scenario in which the virus constantly mutates to evade vaccines, while vaccine makers develop their own new recipes to attack the mutations.

In that regard, oil prices are falling for the wrong reason. American consumers might get a break at the pump but still feel gloomy, as COVID continues to disrupt the economy and force some to stay at home. COVID fatigue is now a worldwide phenomenon, yet voters may still blame their leaders, whether deservedly or not.

It’s also possible OPEC+ will change its strategy or simply fail to meet its new production targets, putting upward pressure on prices. The cartel meets monthly to set targets, and if the Biden administration truly has some leverage over the group, sustaining it through the entirety of 2022 could be a much trickier matter. A month or two reprieve from rising pump prices won’t do Biden much good if they shoot back up next spring and summer. That would leave voters feeling pretty sour as they prepare to vote in the 2022 midterm elections next November, when Biden’s Democrats face the real chance of losing their slim majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Still, Biden will surely take it, for now. His approval rating has been spiraling downward amid inflation concerns, Democrats flailing in Congress and the prospect of another COVID winter. Most Americans feel better when pump prices decline, including the politicians who have to answer for energy costs.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.

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