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Obama urges one-third cut in oil imports

Offers plan to boost energy independence

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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post / March 31, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama called yesterday for a one-third cut in oil imports by 2020, part of a plan he said will reduce US dependence on foreign petroleum.

With rising gasoline prices at home and political turmoil throughout the Middle East, Obama sought in a speech at Georgetown University to rally Americans — and bickering lawmakers — behind a program that draws equally from energy savings and increases in energy production.

“We’ve been down this road before,’’ Obama said, acknowledging that past presidents have made similar calls for greater energy independence. But, he added, “we can’t rush to action when gas prices are high and then hit the snooze button when prices are low again.’’

Most facets of his proposals are familiar. The president proposed wider use of natural gas, including incentives to use it to fuel fleet vehicles such as city buses. He backed greater production of biofuels and vowed to establish at least four commercial-scale refineries producing cellulosic ethanol or advanced biofuels within the next two years. He also pledged to establish higher fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks, just as he did for passenger vehicles early in his administration.

Obama also urged oil companies to make greater use of the federal leases both onshore and offshore to prop up domestic oil output. The oil industry and GOP lawmakers have been loudly complaining about delays in the permitting of offshore drilling in recent months. But an irked administration, which had pledged tougher scrutiny of drilling applications after last year’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, fired back Tuesday with an Interior Department report that revived earlier debates about whether oil companies were using the leases they already have.

Obama has made energy a priority since taking office, with the increase in automobile fuel efficiency marking perhaps his greatest impact.

As part of the economic stimulus package adopted in 2009, he also won about $70 billion in grants and loan guarantees to promote energy efficiency, advanced batteries for cars, and renewable energy.

He has said that in addition to energy benefits that money will create what he calls “green jobs.’’ But he poured a large amount of effort into winning passage of a cap-and-trade climate bill, which failed.

Obama faces a plethora of obstacles in the push for less reliance on foreign oil. One is the appetite of the US economy. The federal Energy Information Administration forecasts that the United States will import a net of 9.7 million barrels a day of crude oil and refined petroleum products in 2011 and 10 million barrels a day in 2012. Net imports accounted for 49 percent of all US liquid fuel consumption in 2010, down from 57 percent in 2009 primarily because of the drop in consumption during the recession.

Yet members of Congress are divided about the best ways to cut imports, with lawmakers often uniting across party lines depending on what region they represent. An expansion of offshore drilling, for example, garners substantial support among gulf coast lawmakers, but opposition from representatives from states such as California, Florida, and New Jersey.

With Obama’s push for more electric cars, there is also disagreement about the best way to make sure electric utilities can meet demands. With Japan’s nuclear crisis still in progress, it is a sensitive time to promote nuclear energy.

But Obama can expect support from people across party lines worried about the national-security implications of relying on oil imports. Yesterday, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report saying “recent events — from unprecedented unrest in the Middle East and North Africa to the Japanese nuclear crisis to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill — demand a thorough reassessment of America’s energy security.’’