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President Obama has not ruled out tapping America's strategic oil reserves if oil prices continue to rise, but he added such a move would first require a "severe disruption of supply."
Increasing gas prices, triggered by the unrest in the Middle East, were among the topics the president addressed at a Friday afternoon press conference that touched on the devastating Japanese earthquake, America's possible involvement in Libya, and the budget stalemate in Congress.
Obama said the opening of the country's strategic oil reserves remains a possibility, but he declined to specify under what circumstances the reserves would be opened, other than to say it would take a major event -- one similar to 1970s OPEC crisis, or one that severely hobbled production capabilities, as when Hurricane Katrina shut down oil refineries in the Gulf.
He added that opening the reserves could be done expediently -- that the process "was teed up" and would not require months or weeks of preparation.
However, the president also maintained that now there is "no shortage of supply" in the global oil market and said the real problem is uncertainty. "We are confident about our ability to fill any potential gaps in supply," he said, noting that Libya in particular did not account for a significant portion of overall world production.
With oil prices edging up in recent weeks, some analysts have called for increased domestic drilling. Obama shot down suggestions the White House has discouraged it, saying, "Any notion that my administration has shut down oil production might make for a good political soundbite, but it doesn't match up with reality."
The proof, he said, is that the United States is "better prepared for supply disruptions" than in previous years, noting that "Today we use seven percent less oil than we did in 2005." The president attributed the decrease in part to more fuel-efficient cars.
Last year, American domestic oil production reached its highest level since 2003, and that for the first time in over a decade, oil imports accounted for less than half of U.S. consumption, he added.
The president insisted that comprehensive energy reform is the only way America can end its dependence on foreign oil. "We've been having this conversation for nearly four decades now," he said. Vowing not to hand reform off to the next administration, Obama said, "I think the American people are tired of that. They're tired of talk."
Switching to Libya, Obama remained cautious regarding any military measures the U.S. was prepared to take, and instead offered that America had "an obligation to prevent" violence akin to the situations in Rwanda and Bosnia. But he was careful to say there's no evidence that violence on that scale is occuring in Libya."I'm not saying that's what happening," he clarified, "and [that] we're prepared to step in" right now.
The president also addressed the budget war currently being fought in Congress, calling for both sides to come together and compromise. He opened the door to another potential two-week extension to continue funding the federal government, but criticized any temporary measures beyond that as "irresponsible."
Obama placed some blame for the stalemate on Republican leaders, accusing them of filling their approved House budget with a raft of "political" riders -- ones he felt had no place in a budget bill. He further maintained that Democrats were going to "hold the line on critical programs" that he believed were key to America's future, including education funding and reform efforts.
Regarding the recent earthquake in Japan, Obama said he was "heartbroken." He assured the public that the White House was coordinating with the Japanese government regarding security concerns, including possible nuclear containment from damaged reactors.
American efforts to assist the Japanese government, he said, would likely be centered around "lift capacity" and cleanup efforts. Obama remained confident that the Japanese would rebound from the crisis, given the fact that the nation was "so resourceful, with such an advanced economy." Still, he said, the tragedy of the quake was being felt across the world: "Humanity is one," he said.
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