Biden administration officials, worried that a growing conflict in the Middle East could send global oil prices soaring, are looking for ways to hold down American gasoline prices if such a jump occurs.
Those efforts include discussions with large oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia that are holding back supply and with American oil producers that have the ability to pump more than they already are producing, administration officials say.
A senior administration official said in an interview that it was also possible that President Biden could authorize a new round of releases from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an emergency stockpile of crude oil that is stored in underground salt caverns near the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Biden tapped the reserve aggressively last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices skyrocketing, leaving the amount of oil in those reserves at historically low levels.
The conflict in the Middle East has not yet sent oil prices surging. A barrel of Brent crude oil was trading for about $88 on global markets on Wednesday. That was up from about $84 earlier this month, shortly before Hamas attacked Israel and rattled markets. But analysts and administration officials fear prices could rise significantly more if the conflict in Israel spreads, restricting the flow of oil out of Iran or other major producers in the region.
So far, American drivers have not felt a pinch. The average price of gasoline nationally was $3.54 a gallon on Wednesday, according to AAA. That was down about 30 cents from a month ago and 25 cents from the same day last year.
Administration officials are wary of the possibility that prices could again jump above $5 a gallon, a level they briefly touched in the spring of 2022. Mr. Biden took extraordinary efforts then to help bring prices down — but those steps are likely to be far less effective in the event of a new oil shock.
“They succeeded last year in the second half, but this year I think they’ve kind of run out of bullets,” said Amrita Sen, director of research at Energy Aspects.
In part that’s because the administration did not refill the strategic reserve more aggressively when prices were lower, Ms. Sen said. That could undercut its ability to counteract rising prices now.
“They got a little overconfident that prices would stay low,” she said. “In some ways, they’ve missed the boat.”