WASHINGTON — Seeking to show the public he understands the burden of rising gas prices, President Barack Obama set an ambitious goal of reducing U.S. oil imports by one-third by 2025, and vowed to break through the political gridlock that has stymied similar initiatives for decades.
“Presidents and politicians of every stripe have promised energy independence but that promise has so far gone unmet,” Obama said Wednesday during a speech on energy at Georgetown University.
“That has to change. We cannot keep going from shock to trance on the issue of energy security, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall again,” he said.
Obama touted a series of initiatives – some new, but many he’s previously announced – that he said would boost domestic oil production, increase the use of biofuels and natural gas, and make vehicles more energy efficient. And he embraced nuclear power as part of America’s energy future, despite increased safety concerns following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that severely damaged a nuclear power plant there.
Obama said he is determined to ensure that nuclear plants in the U.S. are safe, and has ordered a safety review of all facilities that will incorporate lessons learned from the crisis in Japan.
The president spoke against the backdrop of rising gas prices following unrest in the oil-rich Middle East. Gas prices in the U.S. have shot up 50 cents a gallon this year, reaching a national average of $3.58 a gallon last week, according to AAA’s daily survey.
Republicans have blamed Obama’s policies for the rising gas prices, pointing to the slow pace of issuing permits for new offshore oil wells in the wake of last summer’s massive Gulf of Mexico spill and an Obama-imposed moratorium on new deep-water exploration.
The president struck back at that criticism Wednesday, saying his administration has approved 39 shallow water drilling permits since new standards were put in place last year, and seven new deep-water drilling permits in recent weeks.
“So any claim that my administration is responsible for gas prices because we’ve shut down oil production might make for a useful political sound bite, but doesn’t track with reality,” Obama said.
Obama said a significant part of his plans to cut U.S. oil imports would depend on further increases in domestic production, and he pledged to develop new incentives for companies to speed up oil and gas production on current and future leases. An Interior Department report released Tuesday said more than two-thirds of offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico are sitting idle, neither producing oil and gas nor being actively explored by the companies who hold the leases. The department said those leases could potentially hold more than 11 billion barrels of oil and 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Even if Obama’s efforts can reduce U.S. demand for foreign oil, experts say that’s unlikely to bring down the cost of gasoline, since oil is priced globally and increased demand from China and other developing nations continues to push prices up. A longer-term energy strategy, he said, would also depend on boosting the use of alternative energy sources, including natural gas and biofuels.
“We have to discover and produce cleaner, renewable sources of energy,” Obama said. “And we have to do it quickly.”
Obama called for the construction of four new advanced biofuel plants in the U.S. within the next two years. However, advanced biofuels – fuels made from non-food sources such as wood chips, switch grass or plant waste – are still in their infancy and cannot yet be made in amounts similar to corn ethanol. Congress has directed more money to research and development of those fuels in recent years as some critics of corn ethanol have linked the diversion of corn for fuel to rising food prices.
The president also ordered government agencies to ensure that by 2015, all new vehicles they purchase are alternative-fuel vehicles, including hybrid and electric. Obama has previously set a goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.
Administration officials said Obama’s plans would require significant spending on research and development, though they offered no cost estimates.