WASHINGTON — You wouldn't know it from the Republicans, but these are boom times for American energy.
And you wouldn't know it from President Barack Obama, but he has very little to do with that.
From the presidential campaign trail to Congress, Republicans have been hammering Obama for locking up the nation's energy resources. GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, for one, accuses Obama of pursuing policies "that keep us from using our own energy."
But such complaints don't hold up. The U.S. produced more oil in 2010 than it has since 2003, and all forms of energy production have increased.
Obama is not only hoping that simple, rock-solid statistic will silence his GOP critics, he's angling to get some credit for the trend as he navigates a tricky re-election campaign. But he oversells the government's influence on the industry and ignores the fact that many wells coming into production were planned years ago, before he was president.
"We've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration," Obama bragged in recent, multiple speeches. "Right now, American oil production is the highest it's been in eight years."
Data collected by the Energy Information Administration, an independent statistical arm of the Energy Department, are on Obama's side, at least when it comes to pushing back against comments like those heard in the Republican campaign.
"We have an energy policy that doesn't take advantage of our natural resources," Romney said last month. "That makes no sense." Republican rival Newt Gingrich says Obama's "anti-American energy policies are killing jobs and making us all poorer."
Besides the upward trend for oil, more gas has been produced in each of Obama's three years in the White House than any other year since 1936, thanks in large part to a boom in the production of natural gas from shale and other hard-to-reach sources.
Mining for the radioactive ore that fuels nuclear power plants has also risen every year under Obama. And no other president has seen more energy produced from renewables, which include hydroelectric power, solar, wind and biofuels.
Coal mining is also on the rebound, after declining in 2008 and 2009 due in large part to the weak economy and milder weather reducing electricity demand.
In speeches and his first campaign ad, Obama also points to the nation's reduced dependence on foreign oil. But the energy information agency says that the decline began in 2005 and comes from a variety of factors – among them the recession, high gas prices that dampened driving and changes in efficiency and consumer behavior that pre-date the Obama administration.
Even if Obama's policies aren't the cause for these trends, the data certainly make it harder for Republicans – and the oil and gas industry – to substantiate their claim that his policies have dampened energy production.
Lynn Helms, head of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has watched oil production triple in his state in recent years thanks to new drilling methods, hydraulic fracturing and high oil prices. He says federal policies neither help nor hurt.
In fact, a recent report by the energy information agency projects oil and natural gas production in the U.S. will continue to climb over the next eight years, reducing oil imports and making the U.S. a net exporter of natural gas.
But that same report provides ammunition for Republicans, because it predicts that in the short term, oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Obama administration placed a moratorium on new deep-water exploratory drilling after the Gulf oil spill, will show a decline in 2011 and this year before rebounding later.
In the face of rosy production numbers, Republicans and the oil and gas industry focus on federal lands, because that's where the government controls access and permitting to drill. There, Obama's record is mixed.
"He is implying it is because of his actions that it is happening, and frankly, nothing can be further from the truth," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who heads the House Natural Resources Committee. "Where is the production coming from? It is coming from state and private lands," where the government has little control.
Soon after Obama took office, the Interior Department rescinded 77 leases in Utah because of their close proximity to national parks, later reinstating 17 of them.
Then weeks before the 2010 Gulf oil spill, Obama said he would consider expanding drilling off the Virginia coast and Alaska, only to scrap or delay those plans after the spill. And just last week the Interior Department, after completing a preliminary environmental review, said it would offer up thousands fewer acres for oil shale development in three Western states than President George W. Bush had.
Partly to respond to Republican criticism and higher gasoline prices, Obama extended leases impacted by the post-spill moratorium, called for annual lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, and has offered or plans to offer up much of the Western and Central Gulf, and some waters off the Alaskan coast, to oil and gas companies. These steps could help boost production. And the president also has struck deals with automakers to boost fuel efficiency, which will help reduce future gas consumption.
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