Calls for the United States to ban the import of Russian oil increased on Monday, but while President Joe Biden’s administration signaled a new willingness to do so, the president faced the difficult decision of taking a step that would raise the price Americans pay at the pump.
Top Republicans and Democrats in Congress announced a bipartisan agreement on legislation that would punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine by prohibiting the import of Russian oil and other energy products, as well as suspending normal trade relations with Russia.
According to the White House, Biden has not yet decided whether to impose a ban. However, a White House official with the National Security Council told reporters that the Biden administration was considering doing so even if Europe did not impose a ban – a departure from Biden’s strategy of imposing sanctions in lockstep with European nations.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that he had discussed a possible US ban with Biden and other Cabinet members the day before.
“That’s a very active discussion right now,” Blinken said.
Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress have increasingly called for a ban in recent days. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators proposed legislation that would impose a ban, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she supported the move as well.
As pressure mounts from both sides of the aisle, Biden finds himself in a political bind.
After nearly two weeks of imposing crippling sanctions on Russia in collaboration with Western allies, not moving to ban Russian oil imports may give the impression that he is not doing everything possible to inflict pain on Russia’s economy and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Analysts believe a ban would raise energy prices for Americans, and the White House has cited that risk as one of the reasons Biden has not imposed one.
According to preliminary US government data, Russia accounted for approximately 8% of US crude oil and petroleum product imports last year; Russia accounted for 3% of US oil imports.
“What the president is most focused on,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday, “is ensuring that we continue to take steps to deliver punishing economic consequences on Putin while taking all necessary action to limit the impact on gas prices.”
According to the White House, the Biden administration has been looking for alternative energy sources. Senior American officials have traveled to Venezuela and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks to discuss energy, according to Psaki. According to White House officials, the impact on Russia, which sent only 1% of its oil exports to the US in 2020, would be minimal, especially since its oil and gas sector is already “de facto sanctioned” due to harsh restrictions on Russian banks.
Biden has also stated that one of his top priorities is to keep the West united in imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion.
There is less appetite in Europe for a ban on Russian oil and gas imports because European countries rely heavily on Russia for their energy needs (nearly half of Russian oil exports go to Europe, according to US government figures), and analysts say a ban would significantly raise Europe’s energy prices. According to Psaki, Biden discussed the possibility of an oil import ban with the leaders of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom during a video teleconference call on Monday.
The Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House tax-writing committees, as well as the most senior Republicans on those committees, announced on Tuesday that they had reached an agreement on legislation that would not only prohibit the import of Russian energy products, but would also suspend normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus, both of which have aided Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.
The legislation would also give Biden the authority to raise tariffs on Russian and Belarussian products, as well as suspend Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization. The House could vote on the legislation as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday.