Former Gov. Mitt Romney says President Obama should fire three of his cabinet members over skyrocketing fuel prices. He berates Obama for showering government subsidies on politically well-connected alternative energy companies. And he blasts the president for failing to open up more public land and offshore areas to oil and gas drilling to boost domestic production.
“In thrall to the environmentalist lobby and its dogmas, the President and the regulatory bodies under his control have taken measures to limit energy exploration and restrict development in ways that sap economic performance, curtail growth, and kill jobs,” Romney said in a policy statement.
Romney hopes to polish off former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum with strong victories Tuesday in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Wisconsin. As he turns his attention from the GOP presidential primary campaign to the general election, Romney has sharpened his attack on Obama’s energy and economic policies to capitalize on growing public anger over rising gas prices.
While the president’s overall popularity is rising, only 38 percent of Americans approve of his handling of energy policy, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. Yet Romney has stopped short of claiming that any president can control the price of gasoline amid global economic and political forces. Romney is finding it harder than he may have thought to make political hay over gas prices fast approaching $4 per gallon, especially with Obama repeatedly claiming credit for increased domestic oil production and attacking Republicans for “standing with big oil companies” against U.S. consumers.
Late last week, Obama called on Congress to end billions in federal subsidies to the five major oil companies. He said, “I think it’s time they got by without more help from taxpayers who are having a tough enough time paying their bills and filling up their tanks.” Senate Democrats immediately attempted to push through a bill to end those subsidies, but Republicans stepped in to block the measure – providing Obama and the Democrats with an important talking point.
Obama boasts that domestic oil production has increased and oil imports have declined since he took office, and that he has opened millions of acres of federal land to help spur oil and gas exploration. Indeed, the U.S. is importing 10 percent less oil this year than last year, and the country is producing more oil than at any time in the past eight years. But independent analysts attribute much of the decline in oil imports to slack U.S. demand in a slowly recovery economy and more fuel-efficient vehicles. About 96 percent of the total increase in domestic production occurred on private land, not federal property, according to a Congressional Research Service study.
“Mitt Romney has a much more aggressive, pro-market fossil fuel agenda where he talks about opening up resources for exploration and development,” said Nicolas Loris, an energy policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The president consistently says that oil production has been the highest it’s been in eight years and that’s true. But it’s largely a result of what’s happening in Alaska, Texas and as of late North Dakota and all of this is happening on private lands, not public lands.”
Romney says that Obama’s energy and environmental policies are confused and misguided, and that Obama came to office with the notion of discouraging oil consumption by driving up costs and promoting the development of alternative sources of energy.
While Obama now describes his approach as an “all-of-the-above” strategy combining increased production with alternative energy and tough new automobile fuel efficiency standards, Romney insists that the president fire the “gas-hike trio” of cabinet members who attempted early on to drive up gas prices. Those officials are Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.
But Romney hasn’t gotten very far with this line of attack. Recent reports show that as governor of Massachusetts in 2006, Romney opposed a GOP proposal to suspend the state gas tax during a gasoline price spike, saying, “high gasoline prices are probably here to stay.”
In a March 22 speech in Cushing, Mont., Obama said his GOP critics were misleading voters by claiming he can control gas prices. “The main reason the gas prices are high right now is because people are worried about what’s happening with Iran. . . .
It doesn’t have to do with domestic oil production.”
“So yes, we’re going to keep on drilling,” Obama added. “But what we’re also going to be doing as part of an all-of-the-above strategy is looking at how we can continually improve the utilization of renewable energy sources, new clean energy sources and how do we become more efficient in our use of energy.”
Last week, the Obama administration took an important step towards allowing oil and natural gas companies to drill off the coast of the Eastern Seaboard. Salazar announced a plan that would allow companies to conduct seismic mapping on the outer continental shelf of the Atlantic Coast from Delaware south to the middle of Florida.
That same week, Romney told New Orleans radio host Tommy Tucker that while gasoline prices are going to be high for the foreseeable future, “they don’t have to be as high as we’re seeing under this president if we develop our own energy resources and provide them to the refiners.”
In some ways, Romney and Obama are both promoting a smorgasbord of energy ideas that are not that far apart. Both men say they favor opening up more public and private land and offshore areas to oil and gas production, both favor more research and development of alternatives to oil usage, both see a big future in the use of natural gas and oil extracted from shale, and both acknowledge limits to presidential intervention in moderating prices. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Romney has sharply criticized the Department of Energy’s clean energy loans program after disclosure that the government lost a $528 million loan to Solyndra, a politically connected California solar panel company that went bankrupt. The former Massachusetts governor and businessman insists that the government should cut back on subsidies that “pick winners and losers” and instead leave it to market forces to determine which alternative energy endeavors receive funding.
Romney and other GOP leaders have blasted Obama for delaying construction of the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, saying it will cost jobs and long-term gasoline production. And Romney says he would strip away government regulations and safeguards to speed up the issuance of government permits for oil and gas drilling and would amend the Clean Air Act to exclude carbon dioxide from its purview.
For his part, Obama has sought to placate industry by ordering the EPA to delay action on a new air-quality rule forcing plants to sharply reduce smog-producing ozone and new emission standards for coal-fired power plants and refineries. But he has also pushed through tough new mercy pollution standards, implanted new rules that will double automobile fuel efficiency by 2025 and signed legislation that sets aside two million acres of wilderness area across the country.
As for the Keystone pipeline, Obama has sought to defuse some of the criticism by announcing his support for construction of the southern segment of the pipeline, between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast, while the State Department, Nebraska state officials and others resolve differences over the route of the pipeline.
“I would say the president is still much more committed – at least in his heart -- to proving that solar and wind, renewable and energy efficiency should be the future, and that while he recognizes we need everything he is still committed to weaning us off of fossil fuels,” said Charles K. Ebinger, an energy security expert with the Brookings Institution.
“I think Mr. Romney has taken a much more vigorous stand that we ought to open more federal lands for oil and gas exploration,” he added. “Mr. Romney, with his market-based approach, I think would argue that if natural gas is as cheap as it is today, let the market decide, and the market is saying, ‘bring on natural gas.”