World

Americans say they support Russian oil ban — even if it costs them

As U.S. politicians mull new ways to punish Russia economically, including cancelling oil imports, suspending normal trade relations and installing new tariffs, some surveys suggest Americans are willing to endure the financial pain that will bring stateside in the interest of helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion.

Whether that resolve holds amid pain at the pumps remains unclear

U.S. officials weigh ban on Russian oil

5 months ago
Duration 2:39
The Biden administration is considering banning oil imports from Russia, a move that could trigger higher gas prices. White House officials have confirmed discussions are in the works with other oil producers, including Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Americans say they're willing to ban Russian oil imports even if it means more pain at the gas pumps.

We'll soon see whether that resolve holds.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday he'll curtail those imports in order to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

American politicians are also inching toward suspending normal trade relations and installing new tariffs on Russia.

Surveys suggest such ideas have broad public support — for now.

A poll released Monday by Quinnipiac said 71 per cent of American respondents said they would support a ban on Russian oil even if it means higher gas prices, while just 22 per cent disagreed.

That comes after a Marist survey last week that said 69 per cent of Americans would support sanctions on Russia, even if it meant higher energy prices.

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Gas prices at highest level in 14 years

The question is no longer hypothetical.

Gas prices have cracked the $4-a-gallon level in the U.S., the highest in 14 years, which is just over $1.35 Cdn a litre, still far lower than what Canadians pay.

The anxiety over rising fuel prices is roiling markets and is showing up online, where Google searches for the price of gas have hit new highs in the U.S. and worldwide. 

High gas prices are displayed at a Mobil station in Los Angeles Monday. The average price of one gallon of regular self-service gasoline rose to a record $5.43 US yesterday in Los Angeles County over the weekend. Nationally, the average price was above $4 a gallon. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Those concerns spill across the economy, including into the price of food.

Agricultural economist David Roland-Holst from the University of California at Berkeley said fuel prices are one of several reasons he fears growing global hunger in the coming months.

He told CBC News that what has him worried are disruptions to farming in Ukraine and Russia, which together account for about 30 per cent of global wheat exports, coupled with the inflated cost of fuel.

He compared food insecurity to a virus that spreads when markets and trade are disrupted: "In this case, a primary symptom is hunger and disproportionately [affects] the poor."

A combine moves through a field of wheat.
A combine harvests wheat in a field near the village of Hrebeni in the Kyiv region, Ukraine, in July 2020. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Impact could be on food, not gas

In the U.S. Congress, there's a push to end normal trade relations with Russia and relegate it to the list of countries facing an additional 30 per cent average tariff on various products.

Key congressional committees say they've also reached an agreement on legislation that would, if passed, end Russian oil imports to the U.S.

So how much of an impact would all this have on Americans' wallets?

Workers prepare bread at a bakery in the war-torn Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Russia's invasion of Ukraine could mean less bread on the table in Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Arab world, which is heavily dependent on wheat supplies from Ukraine and Russia. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia is a minor exporter to the U.S., the 19th-largest source of imported goods to the U.S., accounting for just one per cent of all U.S. global imports.

That means any new tariffs would affect a limited number of U.S. products, said Chad Bown, a former World Bank senior economist and Obama White House trade official.

But Bown said he'd keep an eye on international food markets, where wheat prices are already approaching record highs.

"If the conflict takes their supply in 2022 off the world market, that could be devastating for global poverty and a number of net food-importing countries," said Bown, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Europe would be more hurt by oil ban than U.S.

When it comes to oil, Russian imports are more important to the United States, but just slightly: they represent about two per cent of the total oil consumed daily by Americans.

Those 400,000 barrels per day in imports, out of the 21 million barrels Americans consume, pale in comparison to the importance of Russian fuel in Europe.

There's a reason Germany's chancellor is downplaying talk of a Russian fuel-import ban and saying it would take a while to switch fuel sources. 

Giant tubes that are part of one of the physical exit points of the Yamal–Europe gas pipeline in Wloclawek, Poland. The 4,107 kilometre pipeline provides 40 per cent of natural gas to Europe, connecting Russia's Yamal Peninsula natural gas fields to Poland and Germany, via Belarus. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Russia is the major oil and gas supplier there, supplying one-quarter of the EU's oil and more than 40 per cent of its natural gas.

Rory Johnston, an energy analyst at Price Street Inc. in Toronto, said a European ban on Russian oil would have a major effect on global oil prices, but a unilateral U.S. ban would not.

James Bushnell , an energy economist at the University of California, concurred.

"A narrow U.S. ban would not have a huge impact," Bushnell said in an interview with CBC News.

He noted the U.S. cut off imports from Venezuela a few years ago, and it was formerly a more important player than Russia in the American energy market.

Ihor Mazhayev, 54, looks at his destroyed house in Markhalivka, Ukraine, south of Kyiv. Mazhayev lost his wife, 12-year-old daughter and got a concussion as a result of Russian shelling. (Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

Now, the U.S. is talking to Venezuela again about possibly resuming imports. 

In fact, the Biden administration is now in the awkward position of trying to extract more oil exports from less-than-friendly governments.

It's also talking to Iran about lifting sanctions on its oil exports in exchange for limiting its nuclear program. And it's asking Saudi Arabia to increase production.

The U.S. is on poor terms with the governments of all three countries, with relations ranging from cool to non-existent.

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed Monday that U.S. delegations have gone to the Middle East and South America to discuss added oil capacity.

Renewed debate on Keystone XL pipeline

Biden's political opponents are beating up on him for talking to America's adversaries rather than encouraging oil production closer to home.

And there's a Canadian angle here: Biden's decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline is now a favourite talking point against him among Republicans.

Republicans have introduced a long-shot bill in Congress to force construction of the pipeline from Alberta to U.S. refineries.

"It's almost like we are in this clown show where you get rewarded for saying pretty words and damn the actual outcomes," one Arizona Republican, David Schweikert, said in Congress a few days ago, referring to the cancellation of Keystone XL and other oil-curbing regulations proposed by Democrats.

"What did you think would happen? ... Look at the lunacy that are policies from the United States." 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney delivers a statement on the Keystone XL pipeline project in Calgary. Some Republicans are criticizing Democrats for cancelling the project in light of the recent instability around oil prices. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

The White House has brushed off the idea that its own policies are driving up gas prices. After all, Keystone's cancellation hasn't stopped a surge in oil imports from Canada through rail and other pipelines. 

Those Canadian imports have jumped to record pre-pandemic levels of four million barrels per day. The Biden administration also approved more drilling permits on public land than Trump did his first three years in office.

"Keystone was not an oil field; it's a pipeline," Psaki said Monday. "The oil is continuing to flow in – just through other means."

'Defending democracy and liberty is never without cost'

With midterm elections eight months away, Biden is trying to keep his polarized country united behind economic sanctions, at a time when gas prices are high and his own popularity is low.

There are no guarantees this unity lasts.

Scratch the surface of those above-mentioned polls, and the threats to American resolve are apparent.

In that Marist survey, for example, support for sanctions dropped 14 points, from 83 per cent to 69 per cent, when respondents were told it could affect gas prices.

A demonstrator holds a sign next to a gas station during a rally in support of Ukraine in Los Angeles on Saturday. (Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images)

The drop was even greater among Republicans, the party favoured to win legislative power this year. When told sanctions could affect gas prices, that support dropped from 79 per cent to a narrow majority of 58 per cent.

Biden began preparing his country for this weeks ago. 

Even before the Russian invasion, he made clear that standing up for Ukraine might trigger price-hikes but expressed faith in his country's willpower. 

"The American people understand that defending democracy and liberty is never without cost," Biden said last month.

Now, we'll get to test that premise.

WATCH | Trudeau, allies mull further sanctions:

Trudeau meets with European allies, announces new sanctions on Russia

5 months ago
Duration 1:57
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his British and Dutch counterparts to discuss a humanitarian coalition to address the mounting crisis in Ukraine. It comes as Canada announced new sanctions against 10 Russian individuals on the advice of Alexei Navalny, a jailed Russian opposition leader and activist.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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