By Andrew Restuccia - 03/08/12 04:38 PM EST
Energy Secretary Steven Chu sought to make one thing crystal clear Thursday: the Obama administration wants lower 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 and it affects American businesses,” Chu told lawmakers on a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel.
Republicans, pouncing on Chu's comments during a vague exchange with a House Republican last week, have revived long-time allegations that the administration wants higher gas prices.
President Obama, during a press conference this week, dismissed the GOP’s claims.
“Going into an election, do you think the president of the United States wants gas prices to go higher? Is there anybody here that thinks that makes a lot of sense?” Obama asked. “I want gas pries lower because they hurt families.”
Chu, during testimony before the House Appropriations Committee last week, was touting administration efforts to boost vehicle electrification, natural gas and other steps to reduce reliance on oil when Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.) asked, “But is the overall goal to get our price ...”
Chu interrupted, “No, the overall goal is to reduce our dependency on oil, to build and strengthen our economy,” with alternative sources and efficiency.
While Chu added that this will help consumers, Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail have nonetheless seized on the comment to allege the administration’s not working to lower gas prices.
Chu sought to clarify his comments late last week.
“We very much want to not only slow the price, but reverse the price increase in gasoline,” he told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Thursday.
“We definitely feel the pain that every American and every business feels when the price of gasoline goes up,” he added, pointing to efforts to increase domestic production, boost energy efficiency and diversify energy sources away from petroleum.
Despite his attempts at clarification, Chu’s comments have taken on a life of their own in GOP circles. Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee again highlighted his remarks during today’s hearing.
Chu, while stressing that the administration is reviewing options to lower gas prices, acknowledged that there are few short-term options to deal with pump prices.
“There is no silver bullet,” Chu said, adding that the administration is working on several longer-term approaches.
“The most effective tool is we want to improve efficiency and diversify the energy we use in transportation,” he said.
Experts warn that federal policymakers have limited options to lower gas prices in the short term. Even a dramatic expansion of domestic oil-and-gas leasing would have a minor effect on gas prices, they say.
Republicans have also pointed to 2008 comments by Chu that they say show he wants higher gas prices.
Chu, when he was director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told The Wall Street Journal in late 2008 that “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” and said he supported gradually increasing gasoline taxes over 15 years to coax consumers into buying more efficient cars.
Chu backed off support for higher gas taxes during his Senate confirmation process to be Energy secretary in early 2009.
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) revived the remarks during Thursday's hearing, asking if Chu ever advocated for boosting gas prices to European levels.
"Not as Energy secretary," Chu replied. But, to the objection of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Shimkus cut him off before he could elaborate.