By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill on Thursday to ban U.S. imports of Russian oil, saying the shipments could be replaced by boosting output in North America and other places.
The bill would have to pass the Senate and House and be signed by President Joe Biden to become law, but the White House has indicated reluctance to support moves that could increase the price of gasoline at a time when inflation is already high.
The bill, Banning Russian Energy Imports Act, is intended to punish President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine and is sponsored by 18 senators in the 100-member chamber, including Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, and Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. Similar legislation has been offered by Senator Ed Markey, a liberal Democrat.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi also said she supports a ban. “I’m all for that,” she told reporters. “Ban the oil coming from Russia.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether Biden, a Democrat, would sign the bill.
“I don’t believe this country should be importing anything from Russia,” Jon Tester, a Democrat from oil-producing Montana who supports the Manchin-Murkowski bill, told reporters. “It will send even a bigger message that the United States is in this with Ukrainians for the long haul.”
It was unclear if the bill will win the 60 votes in the Senate that are likely necessary for it to pass, but the fact that several Democrats are co-sponsoring it increases its chances.
The United States imported more than 20.4 million barrels of crude and refined products a month on average in 2021 from Russia, about 8% of U.S. liquid fuel imports, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
On Thursday, Par Pacific Holdings became the first U.S. refiner to suspend purchases of Russian oil for its Hawaii-based refinery. Russia accounted for nearly 28% of Hawaii’s crude imports last year, according to the EIA.
Russia is the second-largest exporter of crude oil, shipping out 4 to 5 million barrels of crude every day, trailing only Saudi Arabia. A series of sanctions imposed by the West, while exempting Russian oil and gas, have nonetheless disrupted global oil trade, as buyers shun Russian barrels and search for supply elsewhere.
‘PAD PUTIN’S POCKETS’
Russia produces about 10% of the world’s crude and, while it has imposed a series of sanctions on Russia since the conflict in Ukraine has escalated, the Biden administration has so far been careful to not take actions that could send oil prices higher.
“We don’t have a strategic interest in reducing the global supply of energy… that would raise prices at the gas pump for the American people,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday.
Psaki said a ban on U.S. imports of crude from Russia could further increase oil prices, which hit decade-long highs this week. Retail gasoline prices have been steadily rising in the United States, the world’s largest oil consumer; the average per-gallon price for regular gasoline was $3.73 on Thursday, according to the American Automobile Association.
“It also has the potential to pad the pockets of President Putin which is exactly what we are not trying to do,” Psaki said. Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas and many of its energy companies are state-owned.
Still, Biden has said everything is on the table in terms of punishing Russia.
Backers of the bill said it would only affect Russian oil exports to the United States and that U.S., Canadian and other supplies from allies could replace the Russian barrels without boosting prices.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who has not backed the Manchin-Murkowksi bill, said “this is not the moment” for Congress to be setting a different direction from the Biden administration.
Murphy did seem to support the idea in theory of limiting Russian oil imports, however. “It still feels like the right thing to do,” he told reporters, adding that any move in that direction should be done in coordination with Europe.
White House deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh said on Wednesday the Biden administration was looking at reducing U.S. consumption of Russian oil while maintaining the global supply of energy.
“There are other producers in the world that could backfill for any Russian oil we don’t import,” Singh said on CNN.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner, additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Nichola Groom, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Stephen Coates)