Obama energy chief disavows 2008 remark in favor of raising gas prices

Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Tuesday disavowed his 2008 comments about increasing gas prices to European levels, remarks that Republicans have pounced on in recent weeks.

“I no longer share that view,” Chu said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, adding that he wants to lower gas prices. 

Chu, who four years ago talked of boosting the price of gasoline to the levels of Europe, said higher gas prices could slow the economic recovery. 

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“Right now there is real hardship that Americans are suffering at the gasoline pump. We have gone through a terrible recession and a worldwide recovery, but the recovery is fragile and so, as I’ve said, another spike in gasoline prices could put that recovery in jeopardy,” he told reporters after the hearing. 

“There are many, many reasons why we do not want the price of gasoline to go up, we want it to go down.” 

Chu’s disavowal of his earlier comments is the latest sign of concern from the Obama administration over how rising gas prices could hurt the president’s reelection chances. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that President Obama didn’t ask Chu to walk back his comments. Carney then took aim at Republicans for harping on the remarks. 

“[T]here has been an attempt, a largely partisan attempt, to try to take comments like that and pretend that those are policy when in fact the policy reflects the contrary,” he said during the daily White House briefing, adding that Obama “has a very clear record of aggressively pursuing domestic oil and gas production.” 

Obama, in the first months of the year, had been bolstered by an improving economy and the GOP primary fight, but two polls this week showed his approval ratings dropping as the price of gas nears $4 per gallon. 

One poll, conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News, said 65 percent of Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling gas prices. 

The White House has moved aggressively to deflect GOP criticism over gas prices. Obama has delivered three separate energy speeches in recent weeks, and he’s scheduled to deliver a fourth in Maryland on Thursday. The president also granted eight local television interviews on energy Monday. 

Chu, when he was director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told The Wall Street Journal in late 2008, “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 declined Tuesday to say whether he regretted making the 2008 comments.

“Let me not comment on that,” he said. 

Chu had previously backed off the 2008 gas-price comments during his Senate confirmation process to be Energy secretary in early 2009 and in subsequent remarks. 

But, amid soaring gas prices, Republicans have revived Chu’s comments to argue that the administration wants higher prices at the pump in order to win more support for its clean-energy policies. 

The GOP has also seized on separate comments by Chu during a vague exchange earlier this month with Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.). 

Chu was touting administration efforts to boost vehicle electrification, natural gas and other steps to reduce reliance on oil when Nunnelee 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 measures to promote efficiency. 

While Chu added that cutting oil reliance will help consumers, Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail have nonetheless used the comments to bolster their allegations that the administration wants higher prices. 

The Energy secretary has consistently pushed back against such claims, as has Obama. 

“Obviously, what we want to do is get gas prices as low as we can, as quickly as we can, but the most important thing in order to do that is to reduce our demand of oil,” Obama said during an interview with a local Florida television station Monday. 

This story was posted at 1 p.m. and updated at 9:31 p.m.