Obama defends energy policy as gas prices rise

President Obama, under attack from Republicans over higher gas prices, counterpunched on Friday, saying domestic oil production is at its highest level since 2003.

Charles Dharapak/AP
At a White House press conference Friday, President Barack Obama said that US oil production has reached its highest level since 2003.

President Obama is fighting back against efforts by Republicans to blame rising gasoline prices on the White House.

At a press conference on Friday, Mr. Obama said that during his administration US oil production has reached its highest level since 2003. Oil production from Gulf of Mexico waters controlled by the federal government now is at an all-time high, the president said. Last year, for the first time in a decade, imports accounted for less than half of US oil consumption.

“So any notion that my administration has shut down oil production might make for a good political sound bite, but it doesn’t match up with reality,” said Obama, reading from a prepared statement before taking questions.

Why the extra focus on gas prices at Obama’s end-of-the-week appearance? That’s an easy one to answer: With the average cost of a gallon of gas now more than $3.50, fuel prices will once again become a primary topic of voter discontent and discussion, as they did the last time prices were high, before the recession.

Already, a growing awareness of the cost of filling up the tank has begun to reverse American voters’ feeling that the economy was starting to get better, according to new Pew Research poll data. A Pew survey found that nearly 40 percent of voters now say they are hearing mostly bad news about the economy, up from 29 percent in February.

“Concern about prices – especially gas prices – appears to be a key factor in the more negative perceptions,” concludes a Pew analysis.

In this context, administration officials perhaps thought it best to mount to a quick defense to charges House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio made Thursday that Washington has been a part of the problem in terms of energy prices.

The White House has canceled new leases for oil exploration and imposed a de facto moratorium on future drilling in the US, said Speaker Boehner.

“The Obama administration has consistently blocked American energy production that would lower costs and create jobs in our country,” he said at a meeting with reporters.

Boehner is not the only leading GOP figure to sense political opportunity in criticizing the president on energy. On Friday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined the fray as well, tweeting this: “Mr. Pres: ‘increase oil’ means unlock land; end de facto moratorium; hire agency heads who ALLOW production (not just verbally ‘encourage’ it)."

At his press conference, Obama reminded all that the US suffered the worst oil spill in its history only a few months ago – the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Since then his administration has tried to put in place “common-sense standards like proving that a company can actually contain an underwater oil spill,” he said. The federal government now has approved more than 35 new offshore drilling permits that meet these new safety standards, said the president.

Obama said, “We’re looking at potential new development in Alaska, both onshore and offshore.” And he said he is prepared to tap the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve if the situation demands it.

This reserve of oil, stored in salt caverns in Texas and Louisiana, was established in the wake of the Arab oil embargo of the mid-1970s. It was most recently tapped in 2008 to mitigate effects on the US economy of disruptions caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

The president also pivoted away from the current situation to make a pitch for his longer-term energy vision, which consists in part of increased federal investment in the development of alternative energy sources.

The US economy already uses 7 percent less oil than it did before the recession, due to efficiency measures, and it can do better than that, said Obama.

“If we want to secure our long-term prosperity and protect the American people from more severe oil shocks in the future, the way to do it is to gradually reduce demand and then do everything we can to break our dependence on oil,” said the president.

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