President Barack Obama today called for a one-third reduction in U.S. oil imports by 2025, reviving a long-elusive goal of reducing America's dependence on foreign supplies as political unrest rocks the Middle East and gasoline prices rise at home.
Tackling an issue that has vexed nearly every U.S. president since Richard Nixon, Obama said the country can't solve the problem with quick fixes and political gimmicks. But he offered little in the way of new initiatives, relying instead on a litany of energy proposals he's already called for, including boosting domestic oil production, increasing the use of biofuels and natural gas, and making vehicles more energy efficient.
Obama also embraced nuclear power as a critical part of America's energy future, despite increased safety concerns following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that severely damaged a nuclear power plant there. He vowed a thorough safety review of all U.S. plants, incorporating lessons learned from Japan, but said nuclear power still holds enormous potential for the U.S.
"We can't simply take it off the table," Obama said during a nearly hour-long speech at Georgetown University.
Moving the U.S. away from its dependence on foreign oil and toward clean energy technologies was a key part of the domestic agenda Obama outlined in his January State of the Union address. That agenda has since been overshadowed by events around the world, from the uprisings in the Middle East and subsequent U.S. military intervention in Libya to the humanitarian and nuclear crisis in Japan.
But with gas prices on the rise as the president readies his reelection bid, the White House wants to regain its footing on domestic issues before public anger over the spike in energy costs take hold. Gas prices have jumped more than 50 cents a gallon this year, reaching a national average of $3.58 a gallon last week, according to AAA's daily survey.
Republicans have placed the blame for the spike in prices on Obama's policies, arguing that the administration has been too slow in approving new permits for oil drilling and calling on the president to open up areas along the Atlantic Coast and near Alaska, where drilling its currently banned.
"The problem is that Democrats don't want us to use the energy we have," Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell today. "It's enough to make you wonder whether anybody in the White House has driven by a gas station lately."
The president struck back at that criticism during his speech, noting that his administration has approved 39 shallow-water drilling permits since new standards were put in place last year following the Gulf oil spill, and seven new deep-water drilling permits in recent weeks.
"So any claim that my administration is responsible for gas prices because we've shut down oil production might make for a useful political sound bite, but doesn't track with reality," Obama said.
Even if Obama's efforts can reduce U.S. demand for foreign oil, experts say they're unlikely to bring down the cost of gasoline, since oil is priced globally and increased demand from China and other developing nations continues to push prices up.
Obama acknowledged that he's far from the first U.S. president who has set out to put the U.S. on a path toward energy independence. Richard Nixon made the case for energy independence in 1973 after Arab oil producers cut off supplies in response to U.S. support of Israel in the Mideast war.
"Presidents and politicians of every stripe have promised energy independence but that promise has so far gone unmet," Obama said. "That has to change. 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."
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, seeking to explain why Obama's push for energy independence would succeed where others had failed, said Obama's timeline is realistic given recent advances in the clean energy sector.
"I think technologically, we're much closer than we ever were," he told reporters at the White House.
However, David Pumphrey, deputy director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the prospect of Obama making good on his energy independence goals are much about politics as it is about technology.
"I don't think that the political nexus has yet changed enough," Pumphrey said. "What we've needed to do in terms of increased domestic production and greater efficiency has been pretty clear since Nixon's days."
Obama's proposal for boosting domestic oil relies in part on offering incentives to companies that hold leases for offshore and onshore drilling to speed up production. An Interior Department report released Tuesday said more than two-thirds of offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico are sitting idle, neither producing oil and gas nor being actively explored by the companies who hold the leases. The department said those leases could potentially hold more than 11 billion barrels of oil and 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Obama also called for expanding the development of oil alternatives, including natural gas and advanced biofuels, which are fuels made from non-food sources such as wood chips, switch grass or plant waste. Advanced biofuels, however, are still in their infancy and cannot yet be made in amounts similar to corn ethanol.
The president also ordered government agencies to ensure that by 2015, all new vehicles they purchase are alternative-fuel vehicles, including hybrid and electric. Obama has previously set a goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.
Administration officials said Obama's plans would require significant spending on research and development, though they offered no cost estimates