Republican lawmakers and oil industry executives are slamming President Obama for offering to help Brazil expand offshore drilling while U.S. production struggles to get back on its feet in the wake of the BP spill.
The president, on the first leg of his trip to Latin America, said in Brazil over the weekend that his administration wants to assist the Brazilian government "with technology and support" in developing its oil reserves -- a black gold mine he said could hold twice as much oil as U.S. deposits.
"And when you're ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers," Obama said.
That message struck some at home as bizarre and misguided, considering the administration has stressed the need to wean the United States off foreign oil and move toward alternative fuels.
With U.S. oil exploration and drilling slowing to a crawl over the past year, they questioned why the president would throw U.S. weight behind Brazil, a country that also received a $2 billion loan for its state-owned oil company from the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
"We have abundant energy resources off Louisiana's coast, but this administration has virtually shut down our offshore industry and instead is using Americans' tax dollars to support drilling off the coast of Brazil," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a statement. "It's ridiculous to ignore our own resources and continue going hat-in-hand to countries like Saudi Arabia and Brazil to beg them to produce more oil."
Fresh off a three-country visit to the region, Obama is trying to improve relations with the powerhouses of Latin America. Gulf Oil CEO Joe Petrowski agreed it's better to encourage production in more reliable Brazil than in the "inherently unstable" Middle East.
Still, he called Obama's announcement "puzzling," even "humorous."
"More oil that is not concentrated in the Mideast is good for the world and good for America. It would be a lot better if we had the drilling here," Petrowski told Fox News. "And it seems a double standard and it seems somewhat hypocritical to a country that desperately needs jobs ... that we're encouraging other countries to create the jobs that we need."
Furor over drilling, or lack thereof, has returned to Capitol Hill in full force over the past couple months as the price of a gallon of gas nears the $4 mark. Democrats say the rising prices, destabilized in part by the turmoil in several Arab nations, are yet another reminder why the United States needs to pursue alternative sources of energy and improve energy efficiency.
Republicans say the United States needs to develop all resources available, but emphasize domestic drilling and exploration.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., complained that, with his comments in Brazil, Obama is pushing to deepen U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
"He appears to believe the answer is to shift our foreign energy dependence from one part of the world to another," he said.
Democrats in oil-rich states have also chimed in. "President Obama didn't have to go all the way to Brazil to find a 'new, safe and stable' source of oil. Energy opportunities are right here in Alaska," said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
But the Obama administration stressed that Brazil's emerging energy industry makes the country a vital partner. These are boom times for Brazilian energy exploration -- recently discovered deepwater deposits of oil buried below thick salt layers are estimated to contain tens of billions of barrels.
Obama adviser Mike Froman told BBC Brasil that the discoveries make the country a "key actor in global energy markets."
The administration launched what it called a "strategic energy dialogue" with Brazil. According to the White House, the cooperation will entail an upcoming meeting between Brazilian officials and U.S. Department of Interior representatives; a trade mission at the end of May; and workshops starting in the fall on deepwater production and environmental management.
The administration has recently inched forward on approving oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement issued the first deepwater drilling permit since the BP spill last spring.
Then the administration announced Monday that it approved a deepwater exploration plan for Shell Offshore Inc., the first such plan since the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion last April.
But Shane Guidry, CEO of rig towing company Harvey Gulf International Marine, said that, at a time of economic stress, the U.S. government should concentrate its energy investment inside the United States rather than Brazil.
"If you're going to do something for one country, why not do it for yours?" he told Fox News.