Obama to tout energy progress, oil imports down

WASHINGTON, March 12 Mon Mar 12, 2012 5:59am EDT

WASHINGTON, March 12 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama receives a report on Monday showing a one million barrel per day decline in U.S. oil imports in 2011, as the White House arms itself against election-year attacks on his energy policies, which Republicans blame for high gas prices.

Obama, a Democrat, is stepping up defense of his record amid concern higher oil prices may lift gasoline to $5 a gallon in some parts of the country this summer, posing a potential threat to the president's bid for reelection on Nov. 6.

"When President Obama took office, America imported 11 million barrels of oil a day. By the end of last year, that number dropped to 8.4 million barrels per day," the White House said in an annual progress report on U.S. energy security.

Republicans complain that Obama policies have hobbled the energy industry with red tape and point to the administration's blockage of TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL oil pipeline project to back their charge that he is hostage to environmentalists in his political base.

Obama visited election battleground states North Carolina and Virginia last week to promote his message and will speak at the White House on Monday with local television stations serving key swing states, including Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania.

Oil prices have been buoyed by improving confidence in the outlook for the U.S. and world economy, as well as heightened concern of fresh military conflict in the Middle East amid warnings from Israel over Iran's nuclear program.

Eager to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the White House report noted that net oil imports as a share of total U.S. consumption declined from 57 percent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2011, "the lowest level in 16 years."

Obama has also tasked his administration to look into possible manipulation in the oil market as well as evidence of price gouging at the pump, and has not ruled out tapping the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

"We are monitoring the situation and certainly are willing to use all tools available to address these challenges," a White House official told reporters on a conference call on Sunday to preview the report.

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