NASHUA, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Facing intensifying election-year attacks over rising gasoline prices, President Barack Obama sought to shift the spotlight onto oil and gas companies on Thursday by pushing for the repeal of U.S. tax breaks that benefit the industry.
Obama’s speech in New Hampshire, in the backyard of leading Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, was part of a White House strategy to blunt a bid by Republicans to blame a spike in energy prices on the president’s energy policies.
With the issue posing a potential threat to Obama’s re-election prospects in November, his administration has been at pains to say it is doing everything it can to bring down costs, even as it stresses that market-driven price rises are largely beyond its control.
“I’ve directed my administration to look for every single area where we can make an impact and help consumers, from helping to relieve bottlenecks ... to what’s going on in the oil markets,” Obama said. “And we will keep announcing as many steps as we can in the coming weeks.”
Global oil prices have been rising sharply because of stronger demand from the United States, India and China and worries about supply disruptions from Iran. There are rising tensions between the major OPEC producer and western nations over the aims of its nuclear program.
That has caused pain at the pump for Americans, who have now endured more than a month of gasoline price rises, and sparked fears that prices could rise even further, from an average cost of $3.74 a gallon now to up to $5 this summer.
“Anyone who tells you we can drill our way out of this problem doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or isn’t telling you the truth,” Obama said, hitting back at criticism from the campaign trail and from Republicans in Congress.
But Republicans say the president has hobbled domestic oil exploration and dismiss his administration’s observation that U.S. oil output is at a record high, arguing this was thanks to the action of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
Romney, speaking in Fargo, North Dakota, accused Obama of trying to “blow one past folks” with his argument about increased domestic production, and said the administration does not deserve credit for that.
“Far from taking credit, he should be hanging his head and taking a little bit of the blame for what’s going on today,” Romney said.
In a recent national poll, Americans spread the blame for rising gas prices broadly, citing a host of factors including the Obama administration, Congress, politics in general, and unrest in the Middle East.
The poll by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post found 18 percent of those surveyed said Obama was to blame, while 14 percent blamed oil companies or domestic producers. Twenty-four percent said they did not know.
The survey was conducted over the phone from February 23-26 among 1,005 adults.
Speaking at a community college in Nashua, Obama pushed again for Congress to repeal $4 billion in subsidies to the oil industry, calling it a “giveaway” that should be redirected to bolster alternative energy sources, including wind, solar and batter power.
Obama has targeted the oil and gas industry in populist speeches in which he portrays himself as the defender of Americans against huge energy corporations “making record profits off us right now.”
He dismissed the “phony promises” of his opponents to lower gas prices, and highlighted his administration’s investments in clean energy technologies to help reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
But Obama remains vulnerable to criticism from Republicans for having rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, which was to transport Canadian oil through environmentally sensitive areas of Nebraska on the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
On Monday, the White House said it welcomed a fresh proposal by TransCanada to build a southern leg of the pipeline and refile an application for the northern part of the route, including the U.S.-Canada border crossing.
A number of leading Democrats in Congress have pushed the Obama administration to tap reserve oil supplies, known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), to help bring down gas prices, a move that Republican lawmakers oppose.
The White House has so far avoided commenting on the issue. On Thursday, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, told reporters it did not appear to him “that the president believes using SPR would have any meaningful effect on gas prices.”
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Samson Reiny in Washington and Sam Youngman in Fargo, North Dakota; Writing by Caren Bohan and Laura MacInnis; Editing by Will Dunham and Philip Barbara