WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama was set on Thursday to promote a plan for greater use of natural gas and open up more land for offshore drilling during a campaign-style tour aimed at shoring up confidence in his economic stewardship.
At a stop in Las Vegas, Nevada, Obama will seek to counter Republican criticisms of his energy policies by rolling out a proposal to offer tax incentives for companies to buy natural gas trucks, which would help build demand for abundant supplies of the fuel.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama acknowledged the nation’s booming natural gas sector, which has grown dramatically in recent years as advances in technology have unlocked vast new reserves.
Obama will talk up the idea during a visit to a UPS (UPS.N) facility in Las Vegas, which received stimulus funding to invest in liquefied natural gas vehicles and construct a public LNG refueling station.
“We think that we’re going to be looking at 600,000 jobs in natural gas extraction here in the United States and all the industries that come with it,” Obama said in an interview with Univision on Wednesday in Arizona.
The president was also to visit Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, where the Air Force was installing a one-megawatt solar panel system, and where last year it test-piloted jets that run on advanced biofuels.
Obama, seeing some improvement in his poll numbers, is touring five states after his combative State of the Union address in which he took aim at income inequality and also announced new proposals on manufacturing, student loans and energy.
But his effort to keep a spotlight on his policy prescriptions suffered a setback on Wednesday when a tense encounter in Arizona with Republican Governor Jan Brewer grabbed headlines and dented his hopes of portraying himself as above the partisan fray.
Using domestic natural gas as a “clean” alternative to importing foreign oil has been heavily promoted by Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens and has attracted support from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
Still, Obama’s proposal, which would need Congressional approval, could face an uphill battle to make it into law, with Republicans offering more resistance to costly energy subsidies.
Similar measures aimed at expanding tax breaks for natural gas vehicles have failed to break through partisan gridlock, and conservative groups have opposed such legislation on the grounds that government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the energy sector.
Republicans have hammered Obama on his energy policies, and were enraged over his decision to block the Keystone pipeline, which they say would have created jobs and reduced dependence on oil from the Middle East.
Increasing domestic natural gas consumption would benefit drillers, as U.S. natural gas prices have fallen sharply because of the growing glut and the relatively warm winter.
Producers such as Chesapeake Energy (CHK.N) are cutting output in the face of the weakest gas prices in 10 years.
Obama was also expected to announce that the Interior Department will hold the last scheduled offshore lease sale of the government’s current five-year drilling plan in June, offering 38 million acres for development in central Gulf of Mexico.
The department held its first offshore lease sale since the massive BP oil spill in December, with companies successfully bidding more than $337 million for rights to drill in the Gulf.
Analysts said those results were a sign that drilling is rebounding in the Gulf after the administration temporarily shut down deepwater exploration after the BP disaster.
Still, oil and gas industry backers have complained that the administration has hindered drilling through slow permitting and a raft of new rules implemented since the 2010 oil spill.