12:01am

Thu March 10, 2011
Politics

Rising Gas Prices Spur Calls For U.S. Oil Production

Originally published on Thu March 10, 2011 6:32 am

The average price of gasoline across the country has topped $3.50, up 14 cents from a week ago and 77 cents higher than this time last year.

As pump prices rise, so does the chorus of criticism from Republicans, who accuse the Obama administration of deliberately curtailing U.S. oil production.

"What about domestic supply?" asked Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) this week. "What about the Gulf of Mexico? What about all of our other vast energy resources that we are taking off the table and shutting down?"

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has cataloged ways he says the administration has frustrated oil production, from suspended drilling leases to increased red tape. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) posted highlights of the list on his website.

"Since this administration has taken over, they have done everything to block energy development in this country," Hastings said.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who may challenge the president next year, suggested that Obama is quietly cheering for even higher prices at the pump.

"The Obama energy policy to me seems very clear. It's to increase the cost of energy so Americans will use less of it," Barbour said at a conference organized by the Wall Street Journal. "When you shut in the Gulf of Mexico, and American domestic oil production goes down, to me that is bad policy for our country."

But White House spokesman Jay Carney said there's one problem with this line of argument: Domestic oil production last year rose to its highest level since 2003.

According to the federal government's Energy Information Administration, U.S. oil production jumped nearly 3 percent last year, while oil imports fell. While the administration did suspend some Western drilling leases near national parks early on, the administration argues that oil producers still have 41 million acres in which to drill.

"Where it makes sense to lease, we're leasing with abandon as we work closely with the oil and gas industry," said Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes. "And the production numbers are demonstrating that."

Even in the Gulf of Mexico, Hayes said, oil production has barely suffered, though drilling of new wells was halted for months after last year's Deepwater Horizon spill.

To be sure, the effects of that Gulf drilling moratorium may show up in future years, as older wells dry up and fewer new ones take their place. Credit for the increase in onshore production probably belongs less to any administration policy than to advanced drilling techniques, and the higher oil prices that make them worthwhile.

The last big spike in oil prices came during the 2008 presidential campaign. Back then, gas prices topped $4 a gallon, and "Drill, Baby, Drill" became a popular rallying cry for Republican John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

Candidate Obama argued that with just 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, there's no way the U.S. could drill its way to energy independence. Nevertheless, the administration says it has actively pursued all forms of energy production, including fossil fuels and alternatives. The president has also pushed for greater fuel efficiency, which could come in handy this summer, when gas prices are forecast to go even higher.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now we're going to hear about another ongoing political battle. The average price of gasoline across the country has been rising rapidly, and has now topped $3.50 a gallon. As pump prices increase, so does the chorus of criticism from Republicans. They accuse the Obama administration of deliberately curtailing domestic oil production.

The argument is a replay of the presidential campaign two years ago, the last time gas prices were this high.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: As fighting continues in Libya, the White House is keeping a close eye on gasoline prices, and talking with big oil-producing countries about how to offset any disruption in global supplies.

Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana complains, instead of begging Saudi Arabia to open its oil taps, the administration should be looking here at home.

Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): What about domestic supply? What about the Gulf of Mexico? What about all of our other vast energy resources that we are taking off the table and shutting down? What about that supply?

HORSLEY: That's been a popular theme with Republicans. Washington Congressman Doc Hastings, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, has cataloged ways he says the administration has frustrated oil production, from suspended drilling leases to increased red tape.

Congressman DOC HASTINGS (Republican, Washington): Since this administration has taken over, they have done everything to block energy development in this country.

HORSLEY: And Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who may challenge the president next year, suggested at a Wall Street Journal conference Mr. Obama is quietly cheering for even higher prices at the pump.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): The Obama energy policy, to me, seems very clear. It's to increase the cost of energy so Americans will use less of it. When you shut in the Gulf of Mexico, and American domestic oil production goes down, to me that is bad policy for our country.

HORSLEY: But White House spokesman Jay Carney says there's one problem with this line of argument.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (White House Spokesman): Domestic oil production, last year, rose to its highest level since 2003.

HORSLEY: In fact, according to the Energy Department, U.S. oil production jumped nearly three percent last year, while oil imports fell. True, the administration did suspend some western drilling leases near national parks, early on. But Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes says oil producers still have 41 million acres in which to drill.

Secretary DAVID HAYES (Deputy Interior Department Secretary): Where it makes sense to lease, we are leasing with abandon as we work closely with the oil and gas industry. And the production numbers are demonstrating that.

HORSLEY: Even in the Gulf of Mexico, Hayes says, oil production has barely suffered, although drilling of new wells was halted for months, after last year's Deepwater Horizon spill. To be sure, the effects of that Gulf drilling moratorium may show up in future years, as older wells dry up and fewer new ones take their place. And credit for the increase in on-shore production probably belongs less to any administration policy than to advanced drilling techniques, and the higher oil prices that make them worthwhile.

The last big spike in oil prices came during the 2008 presidential campaign. Back then, gas prices topped four dollars a gallon, and increased drilling became a popular rallying cry for Republican John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Vice President Candidate): Drill baby drill, and mine baby mine. It is for the sake of our nation's security and of course our economic prosperity.

HORSLEY: Candidate Obama argued that with just three percent of the world's oil reserves, there's no way the U.S. could drill its way to energy independence. Nevertheless, White House spokesman Carney says the administration has actively pursued all forms of energy production, including both fossil fuels and alternatives. The president has also pushed for greater fuel efficiency, which could come in handy this summer, when gas prices are forecast to go even higher.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.