WASHINGTON — In a Senate hearing that was supposed to be about the Interior Department’s proposed $11.4 billion budget, senators instead bickered Tuesday over the question of whether President Barack Obama’s energy policies are responsible for skyrocketing gasoline prices.
One Democratic senator on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee offered Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the chance to respond to public accusations that Obama’s policies are driving up gas prices. Salazar called such accusations political posturing over an issue mostly outside of Obama’s control and a “phony debate.”
“The reality is that it’s easy to play politics with gas prices and everybody has their bumper sticker solution for what we can do with it,” he said, adding that Obama has always supported an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that includes oil development.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., questioned that characterization of Obama’s energy policy, citing Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL proposal last month, the president’s decision to ban uranium mining around the Grand Canyon and increased fees on oil and gas companies that the department proposed in its budget.
“The president can’t have it both ways,” Barrasso said. “He can’t pursue a quote ‘all-out’ energy strategy and at the same time block production.”
His criticisms echoed those of House Republicans who two weeks ago blasted the Interior Department’s proposed budget for increasing inspection fees on oil companies. The fees are meant to fund more safety inspections.
Other senators pointed out that although U.S. oil and gas production has increased under Obama’s watch, oil and gas production on federal lands has decreased.
Salazar said the reduction in oil production was due to the Deep Water Horizon spill that temporarily shut down oil production in the Gulf of Mexico.
But both he and Democratic senators said that domestic energy policy has little bearing on gasoline prices.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, noted that oil prices have fluctuated spastically in the last two decades despite relatively stable domestic oil production, citing data from the Energy Information Administration.
Gas prices are determined more by global factors and stability in the Middle East than Obama’s policies, Salazar said, noting that U.S. dependence on foreign oil has decreased since Obama took office.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., questioned Salazar’s leadership, pointing out that when Salazar was a senator he once said he would never vote for offshore drilling even if gasoline prices reached $10 a gallon.
“We’re halfway there,” Heller said. “Are we at some point to believe under your leadership that gas prices will reach $10 a gallon?”
Salazar said the Interior Department will continue to develop offshore drilling.
When Heller questioned him again about his statements as a senator, Salazar said, “At the time, it was a political statement.”