WASHINGTON -- Facing pressure to curb rising gasoline prices, President Barack Obama is calling for the U.S. to reduce its oil imports by one third by 2025, a lofty goal likely to run into significant obstacles.
The White House said Obama will seek to reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil by boosting domestic energy production, increasing the use of biofuels and natural gas, and making cars and trucks more fuel-efficient. Obama planned to outline these steps during a speech Wednesday at Georgetown University.
In a speech Tuesday in New York City, Obama pointed to rising gasoline prices to underscore the need for a comprehensive energy plan.
"We've still got a lot of work to do on energy," the president told an audience of donors at The Studio Museum in Harlem. "The last time gas prices were this high was 2008 when I was running."
Obama contrasted his approach to an energy slogan popular among Republicans.
"The other side kept talking about `drill, baby, drill.' That was the slogan," he said. "What we were talking about was breaking the pattern of being shocked by high prices" and then lulled into inaction.
Obama is far from the first president to set out to make the country more energy independent. U.S. presidents dating back to Richard Nixon had similar goals that achieved little success; the U.S. continues to be the world's top oil consumer and gets more than 60 percent of its oil from foreign sources.
Still, the White House is eager to show that the president understands the burden rising gasoline prices have on middle-class Americans, particularly as his re-election bid draws near. Gas prices have jumped more than 50 cents a gallon this year, due in part to a spike in oil prices amid instability in the oil-rich Middle East. Last week, gas prices averaged $3.58 a gallon nationwide, according to AAA's daily survey.
Even if U.S. consumption of oil drops, it will have little if any impact on gasoline prices, since oil is priced globally and increased demand from China and other developing nations continues to push prices up.
Republicans put the blame for the increased costs on Obama's policies, pointing to the slow pace of issuing permits for new offshore oil wells in the wake of last summer's massive Gulf of Mexico spill and an Obama-imposed moratorium on new deep-water exploration. GOP leaders have also assailed the president for saying last week in Latin America that he wanted the U.S. to be a "major customer" for the huge oil reserves Brazil recently discovered off its coast.
"The problem isn't that we need to look elsewhere for our energy. The problem is that Democrats don't want us to use the energy we have. It's enough to make you wonder whether anybody in the White House has driven by a gas station lately," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday.
In order to meet his goal of cutting oil imports by one third, Obama will call Wednesday for new incentives for companies to speed up oil and gas production on current and future leases. 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 will also call for increased use of biofuels and the construction of four new advanced biofuel plants in the U.S. within the next two year. However, advanced biofuels – fuels made from non-food sources such as wood chips, switch grass or plant waste – are still in their infancy and cannot yet be made in amounts similar to corn ethanol. Congress has directed more money to research and development of those fuels in recent years as some critics of corn ethanol have linked the diversion of corn for fuel to rising food prices.
The president will also order 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.
Officials said Obama also would reaffirm his support for nuclear power, which has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan severely damaged a nuclear power plant there. As a result of the crisis, U.S. government regulators are reviewing a wide range of issues potentially affecting the 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors, including safeguards to protect them against natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Matthew Daly and Jonathan Fahy contributed to this report.