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Obama: U.S. can't keep going from 'shock to trance' based on gas prices

AP

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking about his plan for America's energy security today at Georgetown University in Washington.

From NBC's Athena Jones
In laying out his administration's plans for increasing U.S. energy independence, President Obama set a big goal: to reduce oil imports by about one-third in a little over a decade.

The president set out that goal in a wide-ranging nearly 50-minute speech during which he spoke about a series of steps his administration would take to increase domestic oil and natural gas production and promote research into and production of biofuels and raise automobile efficiency standards.

He argued the best opportunities to improve America's energy security "can be found in our own backyard," and he set a goal of breaking ground on at least four commercial-scale cellulosic or advanced biorefineries over the next two years. He made the remarks at Georgetown University, the same place he laid out his sweeping economic agenda two years ago.

Today's speech is part of a White House public communications effort to focus America's attention on energy security during a time of unrest in the Middle East and rising gas prices at home.

"Obviously the situation in the Middle East affects our energy security," Obama said. "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 went on to say there were no quick fixes to America's energy challenges and that addressing them would require a long-term strategy.

"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. "It is time to do what we can to secure our energy future."

As part of the administration's new push on energy, Cabinet officials will hold a series of energy events in Washington and around the country. In an afternoon briefing with reporters, Energy Secretary Steven Chu talked about the "great strides" made in areas like fuel economy, electric vehicles, development of advanced batteries and biofuels and the president himself plans to highlight green vehicles on Friday by visiting a UPS shipping facility in Landover, MD, where he will view vehicles from AT&T, FedEx, PepsiCo, UPS and Verizon's clean fleets.

Despite Japan's nuclear crisis, Obama said nuclear energy would remain part of the U.S. mix of energy sources and said he had called for comprehensive safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make sure that all existing U.S. nuclear energy facilities are safe.

But he also spoke about his administration's work to expedite new oil and gas drilling permits. The administration also wants to provide incentives to encourage energy companies to develop the millions of acres in available oil and gas leases.

In a conference call with reporters to preview today's speech, one senior administration official cited a Department of the Interior report showing that last year the oil and gas industry leased only 2.4 million out of 37 million acres offered. The official said in the Gulf of Mexico, companies were sitting on an estimated 11.6 billion barrels of oil and tens of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

"These are massive supplies of American energy just waiting to be tapped," the official said.

Republicans have argued the Obama administration has made it harder for companies to drill, dragging its feet on issuing new permits. And soon after the president's speech, congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, released a statement in which he said he agreed with the president's goal, but noted, "[W]e have very different ways of getting there. The President wants to decrease imports by telling Americans to use less and to pay more. Republicans want to decrease imports by increasing U.S. production -- while simultaneously creating American jobs, raising revenue to help pay down the national debt, lowering energy costs and increasing our energy independence. I hope the President would be willing to work with Congress in achieving his goal to cut imports by unlocking our American energy resources.”

White House officials believe they can get bipartisan support for several of their energy initiatives and pointed to the Natural Gas Act, a bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), as an example of legislation with the support of members from both sides of the aisle. The bill -- which was co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Orrin Hatch  (R-UT) and has the support of billionaire energy executive T. Boone Pickens -- aims to spur the development of natural gas vehicles and decrease America's dependence on foreign energy.

Still, officials have suggested that not all of the incentives and other proposals the administration is putting forth will have to be passed by Congress. They noted the Obama White House has used its administrative authorities aggressively -- whether regarding auto efficiency standards or efforts to green the federal fleet -- since the president took office, and that it would continue "thinking creatively" about what can be accomplished using existing authorities.