President Joe Biden escalated weeks of sharp warnings to energy producers on Monday by floating a so-called “windfall” tax on their corporate profits, calling out major gas companies for racking up gains from a spike in prices he attributes to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Record profits today are not because they’re doing something new or innovative. The profits are a windfall of war,” Biden said in brief remarks from the Roosevelt Room alongside Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
The speech came as Americans face continued high prices at the gas pump in the final stretch of the midterm campaign season. Biden raised the possibility of pursuing the tax proposal, among other ideas, during hastily scheduled remarks at the White House Monday afternoon. It marked the latest in a series of policy and rhetorical efforts to battle high gas prices as Democrats brace for bruising midterm elections.
Biden spoke just days after several global energy giants posted a round of massive corporate profits and after several months of Biden targeting oil executives in a push to drive private sector actions to increase production and capacity, and, in turn, drive down high prices at the pump.
The president called on oil companies to “act beyond their narrow self-interest,” arguing they had a responsibility to “act in the interest of their consumers, their community and their country to invest in America by increasing production and refining capacity.”
Biden, who has sought to display a grasp on inflation eight days before the midterm elections, also floated other restrictions for those companies that do not do so, which would require congressional approval.
“If they don’t,” he warned, “they’re going to pay a higher tax on their excess profits and face higher restrictions.” Biden did not get into details or specifics of the restrictions, but said the administration would “work with Congress to look at these options that are available to us and others.”
“It’s time for these companies to stop war profiteering, meet their responsibilities in this country and give the American people a break and still do very well,” Biden added.
While Biden’s rhetorical broadsides directed at oil companies and executives have been a staple of his public remarks for months, there has been a clear uptick in the White House focus in the last several weeks. That effort got an unintentional boost last week from an unlikely place: the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.
“There has been discussion in the US about our industry returning some of our profits directly to the American people,” Darren Woods said on the company’s third quarter earnings call, according to Bloomberg News. “That’s exactly what we’re doing in the form of our quarterly dividend.”
The White House responded a few hours later on Biden’s official presidential Twitter account.
“Can’t believe I have to say this but giving profits to shareholders is not the same as bringing prices down for American families,” the post said.
Biden did not explicitly endorse a “windfall” tax and the specifics of what he would consider are likely to remain vague, but key congressional Democrats have pushed different “windfall” tax proposals targeting oil companies for more than a year. Biden, however, has never thrown the weight of his administration behind the idea, which is vigorously opposed by the industry.
Any proposal to tax energy company profits would require congressional action to implement – a pathway that doesn’t exist in the near-term with a Senate equally divided, 50-50, between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans have strongly opposed the policy. Any proposal would likely have even longer odds in the next Congress, with Republicans increasingly viewed as likely to win the majority in the House.
Still, White House officials have weighed the idea behind the scenes for months as gas prices soared in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – something officials inside the West Wing saw as directly correlated to Biden’s approval rating, and by extension, the Democratic prospects in the midterm elections.
Biden has repeatedly railed against gas companies for reaping the benefits of a tumultuous market as polls show voters giving the president low marks on his handling of the economy.
“Those excess profits are going back to their shareholders and their executives instead of going to lower prices at the pump and give relief to the American people who deserve it and need it,” he said at a political event Friday in Pennsylvania, noting that – at the time – gas prices have come down $1.25 per gallon from their summer peak. The current national average gas price is $3.76 per gallon, still up more than 35 cents from this time last year, per AAA.
Biden has already taken the unprecedented action of releasing 180 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and pressed publicly and privately for the industry to ramp up their production over the course of the six-month period those sales were conducted.
But even as domestic production has ticked up, administration officials have grappled with a series of roadblocks, most notably domestic refinery capacity that was reduced in the years before Biden took office.
Despite months of work inside the White House to identify executive actions that would drive more capacity, the scale of the investment and lack of industry incentive to pursue their own efforts given the volatile energy market and the US push to transition away from fossil fuels have yielded few concrete options.
White House officials have met several times with industry executives over the last several weeks, even as Biden has continued to hammer oil executives and company profits in his public remarks in the lead up to Election Day.
As Biden administration officials have sought to balance unilateral policy options and pressure on the industry, they have also weighed the possibility of limiting fuel exports in recent months. Industry groups have opposed that idea as well, citing “significant concerns” in an October 4 letter to the Energy Department.
Last Friday, the President named Exxon and Shell as two of the companies making record profits, adding broadly that six of the largest oil companies “made $70 billion in profit” in the last quarter.
He continued, “I’m going to keep harping on it. They talk about me picking on them, they ain’t seen nothing yet. I mean it. It outrages me.”