Rep. Steve Scalise questions administration official's commitment to lowering gas prices

03 09, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

Energy Secretary Steven Chu tried to convince skeptical Republicans Thursday that he and President Barack Obama want lower gasoline prices. The announced topic of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing was the president's proposed energy budget for 2013, but Republicans on the panel spent considerable time asking Chu about his comments last week that the administration's goal isn't so much lower gas prices but to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

They also asked Chu, a Noble Prize-winning physicist, about a statement he made before becoming secretary that the United States could advance conservation efforts with higher, European-style gas prices.

"Both I and the president and everybody in the administration want to do what we can to lower the price of gasoline because it has a severe effect on the pocketbook of Americans it affects American businesses," Chu said at the hearing.

Chu said any statements he made about European prices occurred before he became energy secretary.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, a member of the subcommittee, was among the most aggressive in questioning the energy secretary.

Scalise said that instead of asking Saudi Arabia to increase gas production, as Chu has, he would be better off walking the five blocks from his Energy Department office to "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" to ask the president to "change policies" that Scalise said are killing production and causing higher gas prices.

As he spoke, Scalise held up a Google map showing the route from the Energy Department to the White House.

His questions left little time for Chu to respond, but the secretary was allowed to speak after Scalise ended his presentation amid calls from a Democratic member for "regular order" after the Louisiana lawmaker went beyond his allotted five minutes.

Chu said that the administration is asking Saudi Arabia to increase production because it is one of the few producing countries with spare capacity that could have an immediate positive effect on oil prices. Approving new domestic production, he said, wouldn't have much impact on prices because it "typically takes five years" for a new offshore lease to be developed.

Chu also said that there is more domestic production today than when President Obama took office in January 2009, though Scalise said production on public land and waters is down in 2011 from 2010.

Scalise also said that it is clear to him that the president and Chu are comfortable with the current spike in gas prices.

In his testimony, Chu said the administration hasn't decided whether to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help push down pump prices.

President Barack Obama called Thursday for a new $1 billion program to encourage increased production of electric and alternate-fueled vehicles through consumer incentives and federal grants.