Obama: I'm willing to tap U.S. oil reserve

President Barack Obama answers a question during a press conference on the White House complex in Washington, Friday, March 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Amid rising gas prices, President Obama said at a press conference Friday that the United States is "prepared to tap the significant stockpile of oil that we have in the strategic petroleum reserve."

Obama later declined to specify the price or supply levels that would trigger the release of the strategic oil reserve. He said the reserve was meant to address a severe disruption in supply similar to the one that hit the United States in the 1970s. There is no such disruption today, he said, though there is "a great deal of uncertainty in the oil markets" due to uncertainty in the Middle East.

The message, he said, was this: "We are confident about our ability to fill any potential gaps in supply."

"If we see significant disruptions or shifts in the market that are so disconcerting to people that we think a strategic might be appropriate than we'll take that step," the president said, adding that "we have it teed up" and it would thus take days, not weeks, to tap the reserve.

Mr. Obama's comments appeared designed to calm world oil markets amid skittishness surrounding the wave of protest in the Middle East and North Africa, including protests against the Saudi government.

"We're going to do what we need to make sure that oil supplies remain stable and that economic growth is going to continue," the president added.

Gas prices are near $4 per gallon in many areas, and the average across the country has gone above $3.50 per gallon, and the president said Americans "feel this pretty acutely."

Republicans yesterday tied criticism of the president's energy policy to rising gas prices, with House Speaker John Boehner saying that "the Obama Administration has consistently blocked American energy production that would lower costs and create new jobs."

President Barack Obama listens to a question during a press conference on the White House complex in Washington, Friday, March 11, 2011.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Mr. Obama dismissed those concerns Friday, saying, "any notion that my administration has shut down oil production might make for a good political sound bite, but it doesn't match up with reality." He noted that in 2010 American oil production reached its highest level since 2003.

"Oil production from federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico reached an all-time high," he said. "For the first time in more than a decade, imports accounted for less than half of what we consumed." The president said that domestic production must still be increased further, however.

"We are encouraging offshore exploration and production," he said. "We're just doing it responsibly." He also pointed to efforts to encourage the industry to develop unused leases on "tens of millions of acres."

Mr. Obama added, however, that oil was not a long-term solution to America's energy challenges, in part because the United States uses 25 percent of the world's oil but produces just 2 percent of it.

"All these actions can increase domestic oil production in the short and medium term," he said. "But let's be clear: It is not a long-term solution."

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"T. Boone Pickens, who made his fortune in the oil business -- and I don't think anybody would consider him unfriendly to drilling -- was right when he said that this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of," said the president. "We can't place our long-term bets on a finite resources that we only control 2 percent of, especially a resource that's vulnerable to hurricanes, war and political turmoil. So beyond increased domestic production, if we want to secure our long-term prosperity and protect the American people from more severe oil shocks in the future, the way to do it is to gradually reduce demand and then do everything we can to break our dependence on oil."

Mr. Obama pointed to the national fuel efficiency standard established last year for cars and trucks and said the administration is working with automakers to create more fuel-efficient vehicles. He also cited "historic investments in clean energy," including in wind turbines, solar panels and advanced batteries.

(At left, Katie Couric speaks with CBS News chief business correspondent Anthony Mason about the rise in gas prices and and we can expect for the price of oil going forward.)

"The bottom line is this," he said. "We've been having this conversation for nearly four decades now. Every few years, gas prices go up, politicians pull out the same old political playbook and then nothing changes. And when prices go back down, we slip back into a trance, and then when prices go up, suddenly we're shocked. I think the American people are tired of that. I think they're tired of talk. And we've got to work together, Democrats, Republicans and everybody in between, to finally secure America's energy future. I don't want to leave this for the next president and none of us should want to leave it for our kids."

Before the press conference, the American Petroleum Institute released a statement criticizing the Obama administration for "downplaying the impact of its policies on U.S. oil and natural gas production."

"Production levels in 2010 are a credit to the vision of previous administrations, which opened areas to development, and to the men and women of the U.S. oil and natural gas industry who have produced more from our resources than anyone anticipated," said American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito.

He added that the administration has continued to "vilify the American oil and natural gas industry - through yearly calls for removing business tax provisions that affect these companies, regardless of the potential impact of higher taxes on production, supply and price."