Obama moves to raise oil production

WASHINGTON — President Obama responded Saturday to voter frustration over high gasoline prices and oil executives' criticism of his domestic drilling policies by announcing steps to "increase safe and responsible oil production here at home."

In his weekly radio address, the president reiterated that he's launched a task force to look at whether any fraud or market manipulation is contributing to gasoline costing more than $4 a gallon. He also renewed his call to eliminate oil companies' subsidies.

Democrats are pushing legislation to put $2 billion in annual tax breaks for the five largest oil companies instead toward deficit reduction. Republicans oppose the effort.

At the same time, Obama noted that U.S. oil production last year was at its highest level since 2003 and said: "I believe we should expand oil production in America, even as we increase safety and environmental standards."

He said he's taking several steps toward that end, including:

* Directing the Department of the Interior to conduct annual lease sales in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve

* Creating a new interagency group to streamline Alaska drilling permits

* Expediting evaluations of oil and gas off the mid- and south Atlantic coast

* Extending leases in Gulf of Mexico areas affected by last year's temporary moratorium after the BP oil spill

Two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House, noted that Republican lawmakers have supported some of the concepts Obama is now embracing. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, however, remains "off the table," one official said.

Phil Flynn, an energy market analyst at PFGBest in Chicago, said what Obama is proposing is "going to open up some more lands for drilling, which is a positive." At the same time, Flynn said, "it's a political move."

Flynn said the steps won't bring down prices overnight, but that if Obama could negotiate a budget deal, it could have a quick impact. "If he got the budget under control, the U.S. would not have to borrow as much money," he said. "That would make the dollar stronger and commodity prices lower."

U.S. oil production has risen since 2008, even with the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The federal Energy Information Administration forecasts U.S. production to hold steady this year and rise again next year.