Libya Crisis Fuels Washington Debate Over Energy Production as Prices Rise

The crisis in Libya has revived the partisan debate in Washington over energy production, with Democrats and Republicans drifting to familiar arguments as they try to figure out a solution to rising oil prices.

A Libyan diplomat reportedly said Friday that the country, which accounts for about 2 percent of the world's crude oil exports, will stop exporting oil while the unrest persists. The United States isn't as dependent on Libyan oil as other parts of the world, but the country still provides thousands of barrels per day to the United States.

As protesters clash with forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, the price of crude oil worldwide has risen significantly -- by about $11 a barrel from a week ago.

The impact at the pump has so far been slight, but with gas prices already on the rise, lawmakers in the past two days have started pressuring the Obama administration to do something.

Democrats are calling for a short-term, immediate fix -- tapping into America's oil reserves. They also urged the president to do more to encourage the development of "clean-energy alternatives."

Republicans, on the other end, used the Libya crisis as another example of why the United States should expand domestic drilling.

"Americans are feeling the pain at the pump as gasoline prices climb towards four dollars a gallon. Tapping the (Strategic Petroleum Reserve) may provide some temporary relief but we must consider America's long-term energy security," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. "Short-term releases of oil from our strategic reserves does not replace the 300,000 barrels a day this administration has squandered due to inaction on offshore drilling permits, nor will it put the thousands of people in the Gulf back to work."

The Obama administration has shown little interest in expanding domestic drilling since the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The administration last fall lifted a deepwater drilling ban it put in place after the spill, but some want the permitting process sped up. The Interior Department also announced it would ban for at least seven years any new drilling in the eastern Gulf and off the East Coast.

Hastings said the nation could insulate itself against spikes by expanding into the Gulf, Alaska, the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Thursday renewed an uphill push to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing the unrest in the Middle East. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell also made the case for Alaska oil exploration and production during a speech Friday in Washington, D.C.

"No doubt, the turmoil in the Middle East has had an impact on the recent spikes in energy prices, but the fact of the matter remains that this administration's recklessly imposed barriers to American oil and natural gas undermines our economy and encourages our dependence on foreign imports," House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., said.

But Democrats say better fuel economy and alternative-energy investment will insulate the market from foreign oil disruptions. And in the short-term, they pushed the administration to open the petroleum reserve. A group of Democrats wrote to President Obama Thursday urging him to release even a small portion of the 727-million-barrel reserve, saying it could have a large impact on petroleum prices in the United States.

"As we approach the summer driving season, we must carefully consider all immediate options in order to prevent the runaway increase in prices that we saw in the summer of 2008," Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.; and Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in the letter. "We therefore urge you to consider leveraging the SPR to respond to these supply disruptions and combat the rapid price escalations resulting from rampant speculation in the oil markets."

Daniel Weiss, a director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress, also wrote in a USA Today column Friday that "drill, baby, drill" will not suffice.

"Unrest in Libya and Egypt is driving up oil prices, stirring concerns that gasoline could hit $5 a gallon by summer. Like a smoker's persistent cough, it's another warning to change our ways," Weiss wrote. Weiss said new drilling would take years to yield anything from the Gulf and sided with the clean-energy suggestions made by Democrats in the letter to Obama. Weiss also said Obama should sell 30 million barrels from the reserve if Mideast turmoil drives the price of gas to $4 a gallon.

"Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton sold reserve oil to lower prices and reduce the deficit," Weiss wrote.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, reacting to the Democrats' letter, said Thursday that the administration has "the capacity to act" but is currently just monitoring the situation.

The price of gas has been rising steadily, though it has not spiked as much as the per-barrel price of oil. An average gallon of gas costs $3.29, compared with $3.16 a week ago and $2.69 a year ago.

Obama pushed to invest in clean-energy technology during his first two years in office. The movement comes as domestic oil production has fallen, from about 10 million barrels a day just a few decades ago to about 5 million a day.