Obama Energy Plan Would Reduce Oil Imports

President Obama is calling for reducing oil imports by a third over the next decade. Environmental groups have long complained the oil industry isn't developing leases that it already holds on public land and offshore.

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President Obama has a big goal for the U.S. He wants to reduce oil imports by one third by the year 2025. If that sounds familiar, it's because every president since Richard Nixon had a similar goal. None of them achieved it. But President Obama says this time it's different. Gas prices are high. The Mideast is in turmoil. The president's plan includes conservation, greater reliance on natural gas and biofuels, and more domestic oil production.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports that some details of the plan are making environmental groups happy and energy companies a little less so.

JEFF BRADY: These few sentences of President Obama's energy policy speech yesterday probably sounded familiar to environmentalists.

President BARACK OBAMA: Right now the industry holds tens of millions of acres of leases where they're not producing a single drop. They're just sitting on supplies of American energy that are ready to be tapped.

BRADY: The president says his administration will create new rules encouraging companies to drill quicker. Environmentalists don't want more drilling, but they argue oil companies should drill the land they have under lease before they're allowed to lease more. Few have made this argument as colorfully as Erik Molvar of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyoming.

Mr. ERIK MOLVAR (Biodiversity Conservation Alliance): The oil and gas industry is sprawled all over Wyoming's public lands like a grizzly bear sprawled all over a carcass.

BRADY: Molvar says so much public land has been leased to oil companies in his state that it's getting difficult for wildlife to coexist. But it pleased him to hear that President Obama was talking about this issue. As you might expect, the oil industry, not so pleased.

Mr. KEN COHEN (Exxon Mobil): I think it says more about the quality of the acreage that's under lease than it says about anything else.

BRADY: Ken Cohen is vice president of public and government affairs for Exxon Mobil.

Mr. COHEN: I'll be blunt. It says that the government needs to put more attractive properties up for lease to the industry.

BRADY: Cohen points to potentially lucrative but politically controversial places like the Alaskan Arctic, the Pacific Coast, and near Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond that, Cohen denies oil companies are sitting on leases. He points out that development isn't just about drilling. There's geological work and raising money to invest in a project. That sort of thing takes time. Cohen says when you include these activities, his company is actively working 93 percent of its leases.

One area of common ground between President Obama and the oil industry is natural gas. Big companies, like Exxon Mobil, are investing in gas, and part of the president's energy plan includes more natural gas vehicles on the road in the future. Still, it's clear those most satisfied with the president and his energy policy are environmentalists.

Marilyn Heiman is with the Pew Environment Group.

Ms. MARILYN HEIMAN (Pew Environment Group): He is hitting the right balance. He's saying we will have oil development, it is clear, it's part of our energy future, but we will also have alternative energy and we will make sure that we conserve the oil that we do have.

BRADY: Mr. Obama's speech contained good news for a few industries. Manning Feraci is with the National Biodiesel Board.

Mr. MANNING FERACI (National Biodiesel Board): The president alluded to the importance of biofuels and advanced biofuels and the important role that's going to play in ultimately achieving the larger goal of reducing the country's reliance on foreign oil.

BRADY: This endorsement was especially welcome to biodiesel producers. In 2009, a tax credit that makes their business viable was allowed to expire, forcing companies to shut down and lay off workers. Now the credit is back through the end of the year. The biodiesel industry is among those hoping the president's energy plan succeeds so they'll stay in business for decades to come.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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