Over a 48-hour period, from February 22-23, Fox News has been using the burgeoning Ukrainian crisis as a pretext to push well-worn narratives about the cause of high gas prices, the Keystone pipeline, and American energy independence. But these fossil fuel-friendly narratives skirt the stark realities of the need for rapid transition away from fossil fuels, which are much more vulnerable than clean energy to international market disruptions.
Ahead of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, which launched on February 24, escalating tensions heightened concerns about the future of Russian gas flows to the European Union — which receives roughly 40% of its gas via Russian pipelines, including two key pipelines that run through Ukraine.
In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States and other western nations have levied sanctions against Russia, which could impact global energy prices.
Ignoring this complicated and nuanced geopolitical situation, Fox has settled on pushing a hodgepodge of simplistic and harmful narratives that further its ongoing war on climate action and the Biden administration. But, despite its best efforts, Fox cannot change the underlying reality.
The reality of high gas prices
One of the key threads running through right-wing media reactions to the crisis in Ukraine is the oft-promoted (and just as often debunked) notion that the Biden administration is responsible for high energy prices. The popularity of this false narrative seems to know no bounds: Over a three-day period from November 8-10, Fox News hosts, anchors, and guests claimed at least 102 times that Biden’s policies have and will further increase the price of gas.
Most recently, Fox hosts and guests wove this nugget of misinformation throughout their February 22-23 coverage of Ukraine, with at least 17 segments mentioning high gas prices. One of the most common instances of the “high gas prices” narrative aired during the February 22 episode of America Reports, which featured Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). Cotton’s response hit all the low notes, beginning with him stating that “unfortunately, prices at the pump probably are going to go up. But remember, they were going up for the first year of the Biden administration long before this moment.”
This line of attack is typical fodder during times of rising oil prices. It allows fossil fuel allies to tie the real or perceived threat of rising gas prices and shortages to Democrats, while pushing for climate inaction. It ignores the fact that prices have been rebounding since economies across the globe began reopening last year, and generally, presidents and their related policies have little effect on the price at the pump and even less on how gas is priced in the global market.
With regard to increased energy prices during the Biden administration, Bloomberg noted:
The U.S. oil industry is still producing less crude than it did before the pandemic curtailed travel and cratered demand for fuel. Even as demand returns, oil companies are keeping production flat while using profits to reward shareholders.
This year, explorers boosted output 4.5% and are expected to keep up the same pace next year. Total U.S. oil production remains 12% below pre-pandemic highs of 13.1 million barrels a day, with no sign of surpassing that in the next couple of years.
That follows a blistering four-year run that saw U.S. oil producers boost output by more than 50% between 2016 and 2020. Investors are now demanding greater returns so oil companies are forgoing crude expansion and instead returning cash to shareholders while vowing to keep spending in check.
Despite the political expediencies that led President Joe Biden to state that he would “work like the devil to bring gas prices down,” the reality is that neither Biden, nor the presidents who preceded him, have much sway over the complex economics of energy markets, which underscore the need to reduce, not double down on, our dependency on fossil fuels.
The reality of the Keystone pipeline cancellation
The escalating tensions over Ukraine leading up to the attacks presented Fox with an opportunity to promote a misleading narrative around pipelines and pipeline cancellations. After Biden issued an executive order last January halting the construction of the Keystone pipeline, Fox jumped at the opportunity to attack Biden for canceling it and falsely heralded the project as a job creator.
During the February 22-23 coverage of Ukraine, multiple Fox hosts and guests revived the debunked Keystone talking points, mentioning the pipeline in at least 15 segments. One notable example aired during the February 22 episode of The Story, which featured Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) describing the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline as one in a litany of Biden’s “foolish decisions” in a conversation about gas prices.
Fox’s lamentation of the Keystone pipeline vastly overstates the impact the project would have had on energy prices and jobs, while ignoring the environmental justice and climate concerns its completion would have raised. Biden’s move to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline did have some immediate impact on energy sector workers. But this regrettable result was duly weighed against the threats to drinking water sources of Indigenous communities whose land the pipeline would intersect. In fact, the existing Keystone pipeline — a separate pipeline, constructed by the same company, TC Energy, which has already been in use — saw 21 documented oil spills and leaks since 2010, including some that leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and other toxic materials.
The narratives around Keystone and high gas prices form part of a trifecta that includes the supposed halcyon days of American energy independence, another favorite topic during Fox’s coverage of Ukraine.
The reality of so-called American energy independence
The supposed decline of American energy independence is another popular Fox narrative, and the current Ukraine story provided yet another opportunity for hosts and guests to promote this debunked talking point. From February 22-23, at least 19 segments included a mention of American energy independence. Like the other false narratives propagated by Fox, this one has been broadly woven throughout the network’s critiques of the Biden administration’s climate and energy policies. Guest host Martha MacCallum and her guest Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes Media, explicitly pushed the idea that America’s purported lack of energy independence is a direct cause of Russian aggression in the Ukraine during the February 23 episode of The Faulkner Focus. They were echoing former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who made the same point earlier on Fox.
Lost in this longing is the reality that America has never truly been energy independent. Energy prices are determined by a global market, meaning the United States will never be free from oil and gas price fluctuations no matter how much oil it produces. In addition, the prices of fossil fuel-based electricity have historically been wildly volatile.
This reality should be enough to temper Fox’s war on climate action. But there’s more. Climate change poses a direct threat to American energy security and is expected to be a key driver of global political instability. Only by transitioning to a clean energy economy can we mitigate many of the risks posed by the world’s overreliance on fossil fuels.
Mitigating energy and political instability requires immediate and transformative climate action
Currently, there are few clear solutions to the complex situation unfolding between Russia and Ukraine. But there is little doubt that the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels, not the meager steps taken toward climate action, have emboldened nations such as Russia. According to The Guardian:
So the Ukraine crisis is not a war over resources, but it has many implications for resource use. Russia is effectively weaponising its dominance over European gas supply for political ends. Reducing reliance on Russian gas is an urgent necessity for the EU to reach net zero emissions, and would also diminish Putin’s political leverage over the EU.
It is also worth noting that in the longer term, as Europe weans itself off gas and pursues net zero emissions, the value of this political weapon will wane rapidly. Russia’s industries have never recovered from the fall of communism, and its economy is now based overwhelmingly on the export of fossil fuels, with much of the rest made up of energy-dependent mineral resources, such as iron, steel, aluminium and other metals, and some agriculture.
Climate change is another “threat multiplier” that increases energy insecurity and political instability, including placing American national security at risk. Foreign policy experts acknowledge that climate change poses risks to “virtually every aspect of the energy system.” In particular, extreme weather events and extreme temperatures can both increase demand and limit oil and gas production across the globe. Recent examples include last February’s deep freeze in Texas, which hampered gas production and resulted in lower liquefied natural gas exports to Asia, among other areas. Last summer’s heat waves across China, Europe, and the United States boosted demand for electricity for cooling, while Hurricane Ida cut offshore oil and gas production for over a week in September. Climate change could also increase electricity costs for U.S. residential and commercial ratepayers by up to $30 billion per year by mid-century as temperatures continue to rise.
And a number of current and retired generals and security experts have stated that climate change is a major threat to national security. This includes the Department of Defense, which has warned that climate change will intensify global instability as food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters create hunger, poverty, and conflict. A comprehensive report from the Center for Climate and Security found that unmitigated climate change scenarios could lead to a “very high” to “catastrophic” threat to global and national security.
Meanwhile, clean energy generation is more price stable and politically stable than fossil fuels. According to the American Council On Renewable Energy, “the most pervasive forms of renewable energy generation, wind turbines and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, have fundamental characteristics that make them uniquely capable of withstanding many of” the most common threats to the supply of electricity.
And less reliance on fossil fuels would almost certainly mean a world with less war. Environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben, who imagined such an alternative during early 2020’s escalating tensions with Iran, noted:
If it happens, this war, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will cost untold lives, most of them civilian. It will also, like those conflicts, cost trillions of dollars. Imagine if we had spent those trillions of dollars not on cruise missiles and up-armoured Humvees, but on solar farms and offshore wind turbines. Imagine if we’d stuck insulation in the walls of every building in the US, and built a robust network of electric vehicle chargers.
No one will ever fight a war over access to sunshine – what would a country do, set up enormous walls to shade everyone else’s panels? (Giant walls are hard to build – just ask Trump.) Fossil fuels are concentrated in a few places, giving those who live atop them enormous power; renewable energy can be found everywhere, the birthright of all humans. A world that runs on sun and wind is a world that can relax.
But you won’t hear any climate reality intrude on the Fox narrative, because it is less a news network and more of a key cog in the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation network. For Fox, these repeatedly debunked talking points are abstractions wielded to undermine the Biden administration’s reasonable efforts at climate action, deceive its viewers about the harms of fossil fuels, and downplay the threats posed by climate change.
As such, the network will continue to advocate for climate inaction, disparage any policy designed to stave off the worst consequences of climate change, and demonize anyone fighting for a future free from climate disaster and environmental degradation. And it will use any and every opportunity, from peaceful climate protests to war in the Ukraine, to push its party line.