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Homepage / ENERGY

Obama Aims for the High Ground With Policy Speech

President Obama chose Georgetown University as the backdrop for his energy security speech.(Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

photo of Coral Davenport
March 30, 2011

President Obama launched a bid to claim the upper hand in the gas-price debate on Wednesday, laying out a four-part “Plan for America’s Energy Security” aimed at casting his administration as drilling-friendly and focused on lowering prices at the pump.    

Obama acknowledged that presidents have tried and failed for nearly 40 years to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, that the energy debate is infused with partisan politics that stall solutions, and that history has shown that when prices fall, so does the  urgency for reform. But he laid out a scaled-back plan that can be touted in “energy security” talking points – even though policy experts say it won’t transform the U.S. energy economy. 

Obama's real goal, Democratic communications strategists said, was to gain control of the energy debate ahead of the 2012 elections, and to push against the tide of “drill here, drill now” messaging from Republicans. The president's plan lays out policies that could be enacted with minimal help from Congress and includes a proposed boost for biofuels that could find political support from farmers and lawmakers from Midwestern states.     

 

Obama started out with stump-speech lines about the pain of high gas prices.

“In an economy that relies on oil, rising prices at the pump affect everybody – workers and farmers; truck drivers and restaurant owners. Businesses see it hurt their bottom line. Families feel the pinch when they fill up their tank. For Americans already struggling to get by, it makes life that much harder,” he said.

The top line of Obama’s proposal is a new goal: Cut U.S. oil imports – which now average 11 million barrels a day – by one-third over a decade.

“I set this goal knowing that imported oil will remain an important part of our energy portfolio for quite some time," he said. "And when it comes to the oil we import from other nations, we can partner with neighbors like Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, which recently discovered significant new oil reserves, and with whom we can share American technology and know-how.”

“But our best opportunities to enhance our energy security can be found in our own backyard.” 

On offshore drilling, Obama is trying to thread the needle: His plan revives an idea launched by Democrats in 2008 known as “use it or lose it.” Instead of expanding areas where new drilling can take place, the plan would require oil companies to increase drilling on the federal leases they hold – or risk having those leases shortened.

On Tuesday, the Interior Department released a report, at the White House’s request, concluding that two-thirds of offshore leases and half of onshore leases now lie idle. The administration will use that report to call on companies to drill, as a counter to GOP pro-drilling messages.

The plan also calls for a push on development of new biofuels, natural-gas vehicles, and increased vehicle fuel-economy standards. 

Overall, the proposal is made up of ideas that have been around the block in Congress.

One piece that could have the best chance of success – and, experts say, the most impact in cutting oil use in the long run – is the proposal to increase vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. Higher standards have a measurable effect on gasoline use; and if the executive branch strikes a deal with the auto industry, as it has done before, it can ramp up standards without action in Congress.

Obama said he stands by his earlier, more ambitious proposals, including congressional passage of a “Clean Energy Standard” requiring 80 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from low-carbon sources such as wind, solar, nuclear, and natural gas by 2035; and he reiterated his support for new nuclear energy even in the wake of the Japanese  disaster.

Republicans and the oil industry pushed back hard.

“It is not correct for this administration to blame energy producers for our lack of energy production,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. “Abandoned rigs sit idle in the Gulf of Mexico, and thousands of oil workers are stuck at home waiting for the call to go back to work, yet this administration continues to slow-walk or stall entirely the permits needed to jump-start safe domestic production. Suggesting that every acre under lease should be producing is disingenuous.” 

The push for biofuels got quick applause from that industry.

“President Obama … particularly recognized the role of America's farmers in the production of corn ethanol today and next-generation biofuels in the future,"  said Tom Buis, CEO of the ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy.

Policy experts say that the proposals fall short of the comprehensive energy reform plan that Obama brought into office in 2008 – but that, if enacted, they could represent building blocks for greater reforms.

“It’s putting one foot in front of the other. There’s a healthy dose of pragmatism,” said Josh Freed, who directs energy policy for the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

Former Republican Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who co-chairs the new Energy Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank that advises Congress, commended Obama for taking a pragmatic approach and scaling down efforts to move comprehensive energy reform.   

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