One week after saying the U.S. can’t “just drill our way out of the problem” of high energy costs, President Obama on Saturday announced a series of steps he said his administration will take unilaterally to boost domestic oil production as gasoline prices across the country hover just under $4 a gallon.
In his weekly address, Mr. Obama acknowledged that measures to break down administrative barriers to additional drilling don’t represent a quick fix. But, he argued, it makes “good sense” to expand oil production by conducting annual lease sales in certain parts of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve and extending across the board leases in the Gulf of Mexico where drilling was disrupted by the six-month moratorium imposed last year in the wake of the BP oil spill.
The moves come just days after the House passed the last of three bills seeking to force Mr. Obama to open up more areas for oil exploration and to streamline the permit process for drilling. One of the bills sets timelines for the administration to rule on drilling permits, another forces the sale of leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia, and a final bill would push the administration to move forward on the 2012-2017 energy lease plan.
Mr. Obama said he’s directing the Department of Interior to speed up its evaluation of oil and gas resources in the mid- and south-Atlantic and hopes to lease new areas in the Gulf as well as Alaska. But administration officials, briefing reporters Friday, said the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would still be off-limits.
The president also wants to implement incentives that would encourage oil and gas companies to develop leases early on. In his address, Mr. Obama reiterated his call to end tax credits for the industry.
“In the last few months, the biggest oil companies made about $4 billion in profits each week. And yet, they get $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies each year,” the president said. “Four billion dollars at a time when Americans can barely fill up their tanks. Four billion dollars at a time when we’re trying to reduce our deficit.”
Instead, he said, taxpayer funds should go toward renewable energy sources, which are “the ultimate solution to high gas prices.”
Congressional Democrats have been trying to force a debate on oil subsidies for weeks.
On Thursday, Democratic senators summoned CEOs from the nation’s five major oil companies to Capitol Hill, where they excoriated the executives for continuing to demand tax credits even as they enjoy hefty profits. The chamber is scheduled to vote next week on a measure to eliminate the subsidies while House Democrats were stymied by Republican parliamentary maneuvers from offering those proposals last week.
“President Obama and House Democrats agree: As Americans pay record prices at the pump and oil companies rake in record profits, it’s time to end the billions in tax breaks for Big Oil,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Saturday. “We must put consumers first, invest in American energy, create jobs and strengthen our economy.”
For its part, the GOP has seized on the push by Democrats to eliminate taxpayer subsidies for oil companies as a tax hike that will result in higher prices for consumers. Delivering the weekly Republican address, Rep. Martha Roby said additional taxes and regulations would only further stifle economic growth.
“We cannot tax the same people we expect to create jobs,” the Alabama lawmaker said. “That is a recipe for keeping people out of work. The threat of tax hikes — along with the torrent of rules and regulations coming out of Washington — has employers sitting on their hands at the worst possible time.”
The head of the House Natural Resources Committee said Mr. Obama is taking “baby steps” in his party’s direction.
“The president is finally admitting what Republicans have known all along — that increasing the supply of American energy will help lower prices and create jobs,” Chairman Doc Hastings said. “One weekend address announcing minor policy tinkering, while positive, does not erase the administration’s long job-destroying record of locking up America’s energy resources.”