Barack Obama has launched a defence of his energy policies as rising petrol prices threaten to sap a fledgling economic recovery and eat into a rise in approval ratings for the president’s handling of the economy.
US oil production has increased 20 per cent since Mr Obama’s election after more than three decades of steady decline, and output in neighbouring Canada is up 16 per cent over the same period.
But growing global demand, especially in China, and uncertainty in the Middle East surrounding Iran, have kept supplies tight. Average US petrol prices are $3.80 a gallon, approaching the symbolic $4 level at which the cost of driving for many people starts to appreciably erode their disposable income.
In parts of the country, such as California, Hawaii and sections of the capital, Washington, prices are already over $4.
The Republicans, who say today’s rising production is the result of investment decisions taken during George W. Bush’s administration, have tried to link the issue to the Keystone pipeline.
The proposed pipeline, from the oil sands region of western Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast of the US, has been delayed by Mr Obama after advice from the state department, which questioned the route.
The Republican 2012 candidates, campaigning in the South ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, have placed petrol prices and the pipeline at the heart of their pitch to voters, saying Mr Obama is holding back a local energy boom, even as one is under way.
Newt Gingrich, who has his nose ahead in the latest polls in Alabama, a primary he must do well in to keep his campaign afloat, has made the refrain of $2.50 a gallon oil the centrepiece of his campaign.
Even if voters understand that Mr Obama has little control over petrol prices, the Republicans are using the issue to reinforce their narrative that the president supports expensive petrol as a way to increase reliance on alternative fuels.
In response to a report from members of his own administration released on Monday, Mr Obama said he had made “historic progress” in reducing reliance on foreign oil and making the US a leader in “global clean energy”.
“Thanks to booming US oil and gas production, more efficient cars and trucks and a world-class refining sector that last year was a net exporter for the first time in 60 years, we have already cut net imports by 10 per cent in the last year alone,” Mr Obama said.
A spokesman for the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said that with the report, “the president is celebrating his recipe for four or five dollar gas”. He added: “Poll after poll show Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of the president’s work on gas prices.”
A survey by ABC and the Washington Post, released on Monday, reinforces that message. Only 26 per cent of respondents approved of Mr Obama’s handling of petrol prices. More than half – 52 per cent – strongly disapproved.
In reality the US election is 50 state polls, and the regional breakdown of the impact of rising petrol prices is hard to calibrate because of the difficulties in distributing nationally the higher production from Canada and places such as North Dakota.
“Infrastructure bottlenecks have left much of this supply stranded in middle America, creating a significant price disparity between interior states and those on the coast,” said a report by Trevor Houser of the Rhodium Group.
“Among swing states, Michigan, North Carolina and Iowa are getting hit hardest, while Colorado and Pennsylvania are faring relatively well.”
When petrol prices rose rapidly last spring during the Libyan crisis, the US, along with other industrialised countries, co-ordinated the release of oil from their strategic reserves, a move that briefly brought down prices at the pump.
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