In energy speech, Obama exchanges the ambitious for the politically possible

President Obama called Wednesday for a one-third cut in oil imports, to be achieved by increased domestic production, alternative energies, and higher fuel efficiency.

Carolyn Kaster / AP
President Obama greets audience members after speaking about his plan for America's energy security, March 30, at Georgetown University in Washington.

Amid multiple pressures on US energy security, President Obama set a goal Wednesday of reducing oil imports by one-third in the next decade.

Mr. Obama, speaking at Georgetown University, set out a multi-pronged approach to reaching that goal: finding and producing more oil in the United States, boosting fuel efficiency, and turning to cleaner alternative fuels. And while he is not as open to domestic oil drilling as some Republicans would like, he did try to reposition himself as a drilling-friendly president, even as he pushed for more electric cars, more use of natural gas and biofuels, and higher fuel efficiency standards.

The president stressed that nuclear energy will remain an important source of electricity in the US, even as Japan grapples with a crisis at a nuclear reactor complex.

He also called for an end to the nation’s decades-long pattern of “shock and trance” over energy – shock when oil prices spike, followed by trance when prices go down.

“We can't rush to propose action when gas prices are high and then hit the snooze button when they fall again,” Obama said. “The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity – our long-term security – on a resource that will eventually run out, and even before it runs out will get more and more expensive to extract from the ground.”

As gas prices rise above $4 a gallon in more states and Mideast turmoil sows uncertainty in oil markets, Obama sought to get ahead of the growing political and economic pressures over energy. Gone is the “cap and trade” policy of his first two years in office, which would have put a price on carbon dioxide emissions had the proposal become law. Now, with Republicans in control of the House, Obama is highlighting measures that are already in the works, or, if action is needed for implementation, either the executive branch can do itself or already has bipartisan support in Congress. He called it a “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future."

But Obama made clear that addressing the nation’s addiction to imported oil isn’t simply about cutting imports, it’s about developing sources of oil in stable countries. He referred more than once to his trip last week to Brazil, which has discovered significant oil reserves, and with whom the US can share American technology and know-how, Obama said.

Obama also pushed the oil industry to make more use of opportunities it already has.

“Right now, the industry holds tens of millions of acres of leases where they're not producing a – a single drop,” the president said. “They're just sitting on supplies of American energy that are ready to be tapped. And that's why part of our plan is to provide new and better incentives that promote rapid, responsible development of these resources.”

These incentives include shortening of some lease terms to encourage earlier development, and requiring drilling to begin before an extension can be granted on a lease.

The American Petroleum Institute, the trade association for the oil and gas industry, has been pushing back on the criticism over these “nonproducing leases,” saying the real issue is government-imposed delays and obstacles.

Obama also took advantage of an audience of students to make a campaign-like appeal to their role as future leaders. He suggested that it might be easy to feel cynical about the future of energy in America, given all the failed attempts to achieve energy independence.

“But everything I have seen and experienced with your generation convinces me otherwise,” Obama said. “I think that precisely because you are coming of age at a time of such rapid and sometimes unsettling change, born into a world with fewer walls, educated in an era of constant information, tempered by war and economic turmoil – because that's the world in which you're coming of age, I think you believe as deeply as any of our previous generations that America can change, and it can change for the better. “

“We need that,” he said. “We need you to dream big.”

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