A June 4 2022 Facebook post about gas prices in May 2020 had been shared more than 200,000 times as of June 15 2022:
Black text against a green background read:
Btw, gas was $1.87 on Memorial Day in 2020 when the mean tweeter was in office. ????
Former United States President Donald Trump was nearing the end of his single term in May 2020, and the meme implied that his successor, U.S. President Joe Biden, was at fault for costlier gas in June 2022.
2022 Social Media Discourse About Gas Prices
Rising gas prices remained a common topic of discussion in June 2022. In March 2022, the topic of higher gas prices came to viral attention after an Applebee’s franchisee’s email was leaked.
Also in March 2022, posts about the respective prices of oil barrels and a gallon of gas in 2008 circulated. In the same month, claims that gas cost $6.09 a gallon in California spread on social media, and in May 2022, a controversial vote in Congress on the topic of ongoing high prices at the pump sparked debate:
As gas prices continued to remain high in June 2022, the popular post appeared to contrast gas prices on Memorial Day in May 2022 with prices on Memorial Day in May 2020. It cited a highly specific figure, $1.87 for a gallon of gas on Memorial Day in 2020.
Gas Prices on Memorial Day in 2020
Gas prices can vary wildly by state, city, and even station, so it took some searching to locate that specific figure, which came from a credible source: The American Automobile Association, or AAA, an organization known to track gas prices. AAA published a press release using that figure on May 18 2020.
AAA’s headline described the prices as the lowest in “nearly two decades,” and its subheading noted: “When it is safe to travel, AAA expects vacationers will explore America’s backyard.” The press release described $1.87 as a “national average” at press time, and explained:
Pump prices continue to increase across the country with nearly every state’s average pushing more expensive on the week, on average by four cents. At the start of the Memorial Day work week [in May 2020], the national gas price average is $1.87.
The last time the national gas price average leading into the holiday was under $2/gallon was 17 years ago in 2003. That year motorists paid, on average, $1.50 to fill-up. Gas prices this year won’t be as cheap as 2003, but today’s national average is a dollar cheaper than one year ago.
“Gas prices around Memorial Day have not been this cheap in nearly 20 years. However, as the country continues to practice social distancing, this year’s unofficial kick-off to summer is not going to drive the typical millions of Americans to travel,” said Jeanette Casselano, AAA spokesperson. “Despite inexpensive gas prices, AAA anticipates this year’s holiday will likely set a record low for travel volume.”
For the first time in 20 years, AAA will not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast due to COVID-19 impacts on the underlying economic data used to create the forecast.
Even in the context where the $1.87 per gallon price for May 2020 appeared, so too did repeated mention of curtailed travel due to ongoing social distancing and related circumstances early in 2020, as a lengthy public health catastrophe began to unfold.
Why Were Gas Prices So Low in May 2020?
It would be redundant to extensively rehash the events of the first half of 2020; low gas prices were one of many newsworthy stories at the time.
On February 22 2022, several weeks before social distancing and stay-at-home orders were introduced globally, Investopedia.com published an investing-heavy report about then-tanking crude oil prices (citing a price of negative $37 a barrel):
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the oil industry in 2020, forcing U.S. oil prices to go negative for the first time on record. In a matter of hours on April 20, the May 2020 contract futures price for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) plummeted from $18 a barrel to around -$37 a barrel.
Oil producers were faced with a glut of crude oil that left them scrambling to find space to store the oversupply. Brent crude oil prices also tumbled, closing at $9.12 a barrel on April 21 , a far cry from the $70 a barrel that crude oil fetched at the beginning of the year.
As of April 2020, the New York Times reported that oil prices remained negative:
Something bizarre happened in the oil markets on Monday [April 20 2020]: Prices fell so much that some traders paid buyers to take oil off their hands.
The price of the main U.S. oil benchmark fell more than $50 a barrel to end the day about $30 below zero, the first time oil prices have ever turned negative. Such an eye-popping slide is the result of a quirk in the oil market, but it underscores the industry’s disarray as the coronavirus pandemic decimates the world economy.
Demand for oil is collapsing, and despite a deal by Saudi Arabia, Russia and other nations to cut production, the world is running out of places to put all the oil the industry keeps pumping out — about 100 million barrels a day. At the start of the year, oil sold for over $60 a barrel but by Friday it hit about $20.
As reported, early 2020 marked “the first time oil prices [had] ever turned negative,” a “bizarre” element of the chaotic events of the first half of 2020. On the same day the Times piece was published, Fortune.com’s “‘Unreal’: Oil prices go negative for the first time in history” reported:
Crude oil prices dropped into negative territory for the first time in history Monday [April 20 2020], as financial fireworks collided with evaporating demand and scarce storage. The decline below zero means that sellers are effectively paying buyers to take the oil off their hands.
By late Monday afternoon [April 20 2020] New York time, the front month WTI contract was sitting at minus $38.45/barrel, down an eye-watering 310.45% on the day.
“It’s like trying to explain something that is unprecedented and seemingly unreal,” said Louise Dickson, an oil analyst at Oslo based Rystad Energy.
That descent into negative territory marks a remarkable, apparently unstoppable, decline over the course of the day. However, while analysts warn the market is weak, the sheer scale of the decline is largely a reflection of a technical clash—rather than real-world trading.
Unprecedented conditions in crude oil markets were so notable that market-focused outlets published retrospective pieces in 2021. An April 19 2021 MarketWatch.com piece read, in part:
It’s been a year [as of April 2021] since U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude futures made history by trading and settling in negative territory, and while prices have recovered to trade above pre-COVID 19 levels, that day won’t be soon forgotten.
“Last year proved that we hadn’t seen it all in the oil world,” said Bjornar Tonhaugen, head of oil markets at Rystad Energy, in emailed commentary on Monday. “Many failed to see the gravity of what was coming,” including oil producers, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and their allies, governments and analysts.
On April 20, 2020, the front-month May 2020 WTI crude contract dropped 306%, or $55.90, for the session, to settle at negative $37.63 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The one-day plunge was the largest based on records going back to 1983, and the settlement was the lowest on record, according to Dow Jones Market Data, marking the first and only time a contract closed with a negative value.
As gas prices plummeted in March 2020, USA Today‘s coverage noted that few people were able to benefit from rock-bottom gas prices:
“In normal times this would be considered a boom for the economy,” said Tom Seng, director of the School of Energy Economics, Policy and Commerce at the University of Tulsa. “Consumers don’t really benefit from low gasoline prices unless their lives are normal. People would be saving on their everyday use of gasoline if things were normal.”
In short, nearly everyone old enough to purchase gasoline and drive a vehicle was old enough to remember that gas prices didn’t hit $1.87 a gallon due to clever management of the economy, but because of an unprecedented global event of massive size and effect.
Why Was Gas So Expensive in June 2022?
Likewise, gas prices in June 2022 didn’t spike upwards in a vacuum.
If it was redundant to recap the events leading to extremely low gas prices in 2022, it was even more so to recap 2022 in 2022. A June 13 2022 Washington Post article, “Pump shock: Why gas prices are so high,” began by referencing yet another unexpected series of events influencing prices at the pump:
Gas prices have more than doubled in two years, saddling millions of people who drive cars and trucks every day with enormous costs.
A rare combination of economic and geopolitical forces now manifest themselves at the gas pump. The economy’s rapid recovery from the pandemic created more demand for gasoline, pushing prices higher. Then, the invasion of Ukraine led to a global backlash against Russia, which produces more oil than all but two other countries. So prices went higher again.
A June 14 2022 CNet.com piece also cited supply and demand fluctuations alongside Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as two of the factors influencing gas prices, adding:
Though $5.02 a gallon is a record dollar amount, adjusted for inflation it’s still below the 2008 peak of $4.14, which would be about $5.37 now. But experts don’t believe we’ve seen the end of rising gas prices.
Yet another June 14 2022 article with a familiar headline (“Why Gas Prices Are So High”) was published by the New York Times. It mentioned crude oil prices in the first half of 2022 as another “driving” factor:
Gas prices in the United States are at record highs [in June 2022]. And even when adjusting for inflation, they are on average at levels rarely seen in the last 50 years, including during the energy crisis of the late 1970s. When fuel prices go up, consumers are hurt directly at the pump, but also indirectly when higher transportation costs raise prices on everything from food to diapers to construction materials.
The single biggest factor driving the spike now is the price of crude oil. As of April , according to the Energy Information Administration, the cost of the raw material accounted for 60 percent of the price of a gallon of regular gasoline. That compares to 52 percent the same time a year ago, and just 25 percent in April 2020 — when the pandemic sapped demand for fuel, along with most other goods and commodities.
A trade publication for gas stations published a March 2022 piece about rising gas prices, “When Were Gas Prices Low?” It addressed the issue from the perspective of retailers, observing that low gas prices very typically correspond with unpleasant events:
When prices are low, drivers are in a better mood, and they’re more likely to buy something inside the store, especially because they have extra cash. And expenses are lower. Swipe fees for credit cards average about 2.2%. When gas is $2 a gallon, those fees are about 44 cents for a 10-gallon fill-up. At $4 a gallon, those fees double to 88 cents.
Pretty much everyone wants to see prices lower, and there’s been a lot of talk about the “good ol’ days” when gas prices were under $2 a gallon. Yes, gas prices had been very low a few times, but those weren’t good times. When oil prices drop dramatically, it’s because demand suddenly dried up—and it’s probably because something terrible happened … Huge decreases in demand push down oil prices. Meanwhile, huge decreases in supply—or concerns about supply—push up oil prices. And that’s what we are seeing in 2022. Russia is the world’s third-largest producer of oil, responsible for approximately 10% of the world’s supply. It’s still unclear if that oil will continue to flow to the rest of the world and what would replace it, and that’s pushing oil and gas prices higher.
Crediting or Blaming American Presidents for Low or High Gas Prices
As reported at length above, a complicated array of global factors influence consumer prices for gas — supply and demand, wars, pandemics, climate change, and inflation among them.
A November 2021 NPR report addressed whether any president can affect gas prices, explaining:
You probably don’t need a news report to tell you that gasoline prices have been surging. Prices are at a seven-year high, up more than a dollar from a year ago.
Rising energy costs, including gasoline as well as natural gas and coal, are a major driver of high inflation. That’s putting pressure on household budgets and creating a major political problem for the Biden administration.
The president recently said that addressing inflation “is a top priority for me,” and his administration has repeatedly alluded to the possibility of some sort of action to push gasoline prices down.
So what can the president actually do? As it turns out, not much.
“It’s a huge toolbox, but most of the tools aren’t that useful,” says Kevin Book, the managing director of Clearview Energy Partners. “That’s sort of the problem most presidents have.”
A June 6 2022 PolitiFact fact check examined the influence of a president on gas prices:
Biden has little to do with gas prices. Oil is part of a global market that is impacted by a slew of factors — like pandemics, inflation and war — that are largely outside of the president’s control.
“Just as I don’t think you can blame Biden for high gas prices, I don’t think you can give Biden credit for low gas prices compared with other countries,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
And in “Does the President Control Gas Prices?”, the same gas station trade publication observed back in February 2021 that the issue boiled down to “supply and demand”:
Let’s start with a basic assumption that we can all agree upon: Politicians and their political parties don’t want to be affiliated with high gas prices.
Gas prices are the ultimate pocketbook issue that everyone talks about. Songs are written about them. You don’t see that about eggs, bread or milk. Or property taxes, for that matter. Quite simply voters hate high—or rising—gas prices. That’s probably the main reason that the federal gas tax hasn’t budged since 1993 when it was increased to 18.4 cents per gallon.
So given that every politician wants to take credit for keeping gas prices in check, or better, lowering them, and every one running against an incumbent wants to pin blame on the person in charge, it makes sense that politicians would do everything in their power to keep gas prices low. Especially presidents.
So why are they so bad at it?
Actually, it’s not that they’re bad at it. It’s that they have very little control over it. Yes, policies and legislation can certainly play a role, but gas prices are largely dictated by oil prices and oil prices are dependent upon supply and demand. Presidential control is not as simple as what those posts suggest on social media.
A very popular Facebook status update declared that “gas was $1.87 on Memorial Day in 2020 when the mean tweeter was in office,” insinuating that former U.S. President Donald Trump kept gas prices low, while the Biden administration has allowed them to skyrocket. The claim was, perhaps, believable to a person who was wholly unaware of what transpired between early 2020 and mid-2022, but the post was very clearly leaving out what precisely caused gas prices to plummet in May 2020 — much of the world lived under “stay-at-home” orders, causing demand for gasoline to crater. Likewise, few people were unaware that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the return of in-person activities affected the price of gas. Although it is true that gas on average cost $1.87 per gallon on Memorial Day in 2020, the source for that figure added that few if any Americans would truly benefit from inexpensive gas during the early stages of a worldwide catastrophe.