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Obama announces steps to speed oil drilling

By Lesa Jansen, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The president made the announcement in his weekly address
  • He will also fast-forward the testing of areas off the east coast
  • The announcement comes after House passes bills to open up drilling

Washington (CNN) -- With gas topping $4 a gallon, President Barack Obama on Saturday announced new plans to speed up domestic drilling for oil.

In his weekly address to the nation, the president outlined his plans for what he calls "safe and responsible" oil production.

The Obama administration will speed up the leasing process for the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, give oil companies better financial incentives to use their leases and extend all drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico so oil companies have more time to implement safety measures after the devastating BP oil spill.

He will also fast-forward the testing of areas off the east coast of the United States to see what oil resources are there and if it would be safe and commercially viable to drill.

The president's energy strategy has sought to reduce America's reliance on foreign oil by opening up large swaths of U.S. coastal waters to oil and natural gas exploration, such as in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

Those plans include such controversial measures as lifting a 20-year ban on drilling off the Virginia coastline and allowing access to parts of the Arctic Ocean off Alaska's North Shope.

That approach has been well received by the energy industry that is seeking encouragement for its ventures, but it has angered environmentalists, who often point to the devastating contamination in the Gulf of Mexico when a BP oil drilling rig exploded and spewed millions of gallons of crude for 86 days last year.

Exacerbating the political tension is how environmentalists -- not oil companies -- have traditionally supported Democrats such as Obama.

This weekend's announcements by the president came as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives recently passed several bills to open up drilling off the coasts of the United States.

Those legislative measures were highlighted in the Republicans' weekly address, given by U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, who blamed Washington for the country's energy problems.

"It is failing to promote policies that will put our economy on a path to prosperity," Roby said. "Year after year, politicians in Washington talk about steps to ease the pain at the pump, but they never act.

"It hit home this spring when the president promoted Brazilian-made energy in Brazil while his administration keeps our resources here at home under lock and key. I am pleased to report the House has passed several measures designed to expand domestic energy production to help address the soaring gas prices," Roby said. "This is also important because when we're talking about energy, we're talking about jobs."

Why U.S. should boost oil production
Obama's oil production plan

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said House Democrats and the president agree oil companies are raking in record profits and "it's time to end the billions in tax breaks for big oil."

"We must put consumers first, invest in American energy, create jobs, and strengthen our economy. Yet Republicans continue to vote against holding Big Oil accountable and providing relief to consumers," Pelosi said in a statement.

The Democrats' energy plan "eliminates breaks for Big Oil; encourages oil companies to drill on the public land they already control; increases safe oil production in Alaska and in the Gulf; and uses the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase the oil supply and combat gasoline price hikes from Wall Street speculation," Pelosi said.

In his address, the president pointed out that extending leases in the Gulf of Mexico was a provision in one of the most recent Republican bills to pass the House. But while the Republican-backed bills went much further than the president's drilling changes, none was expected to pass the Democratic Senate.

The White House maintains its plan will expand oil production while at the same time "increasing safety and environmental standards."

For example, while opening up more leases in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve by scheduling yearly lease sales, the administration is also stepping up safety oversight.

The president announced he is forming a new high level, interagency working group to oversee the Arctic drilling projects to make sure they "meet health, safety and environmental standards."

As for the controversial Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the administration is adamant there is no compromise there.

Obama said the pain at the pump, compounded by a stagnate economy, prompted the new guidelines.

"Without a doubt, one of the biggest burdens over the last few months has been the price of gasoline," the president said.

CNN's Michael Martinez contributed to this story.