WASHINGTON (AP) - For the second time this month, House Republicans are seeking to restrict presidential use of the nation's emergency oil stockpile - a proposal that has already drawn a White House veto threat.
A GOP bill set for a vote Friday would require the government to offset any non-emergency withdrawals from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve with new drilling on public lands and oceans. Republicans accuse President Joe Biden of abusing the reserve for political reasons to keep gas prices low, while Biden says tapping the reserve was needed last year in response to a ban on Russian oil imports following President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
Biden withdrew 180 million barrels from the strategic reserve over several months, bringing the stockpile to its lowest level since the 1980s. The administration said last month it will start to replenish the reserve now that oil prices have gone down.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre attacked the latest GOP proposal, which follows a bill approved two weeks ago that would prohibit the Energy Department from selling oil from the strategic reserve to companies owned or influenced by the Chinese Communist Party.
"House Republicans will vote to raise gas prices on American families ... and help Putin's war aims by interfering with our ability to release oil,'' Jean-Pierre said, referring to the current GOP bill. "These extreme policies would subject working families to immense financial pain and balloon our deficit, all just to benefit the wealthiest taxpayers and big corporations.''
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, appearing with Jean-Pierre at the White House, said the bill would make it "harder to offer Americans relief in the future" from oil disruptions that could raise prices.
Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee and sponsored the GOP bill, accused Granholm and the White House of multiple misleading claims, including an erroneous assertion that the bill could affect use of the reserve during a presidentially declared emergency.
"At a time when gas prices are on the rise, Secretary Granholm and the Biden administration need to be transparent with the American people about their efforts to cover up how they've abused the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as an election-year gimmick,'' McMorris Rodgers said.
"Republicans want durable, long-lasting relief at the pump. The best way to do this is by unleashing American energy,'' which her legislation helps accomplish, added McMorris Rodgers, of Washington state.
The heated rhetoric is part of a larger fight over oil drilling and climate change. Republicans say restrictions on oil leasing imposed by the Biden administration hamper U.S. energy production and harm the economy, while Democrats tout a sweeping climate law approved last year as a crucial step to wean the nation off fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. The measure authorizes billions in spending to boost renewable energy such as wind and solar power and includes incentives for Americans to buy millions of electric cars, heat pumps, solar panels and more efficient appliances.
Biden, citing the dangers of climate change, canceled the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline in his first days in office and suspended new oil and gas leases on federal lands. The moratorium has since been lifted, under court order, but Republicans complain that lease sales for new drilling rights are still limited.
Biden campaigned on pledges to end new drilling on public lands, and climate activists have pushed him to move faster to shut down oil leasing. Fossil fuels extracted from public lands account for about 20% of energy-related U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making them a prime target for emissions reductions intended to slow global warming.
"Whether on land or at sea, oil drilling poses an unacceptable risk for our wildlife, wild places and waterways,'' said Lisa Frank of Environment America, an advocacy group. "When we drill, we spill. At a time when we should be moving away from this destructive, dangerous practice - and expanding use of renewable power - this bill doubles down on the outmoded energy of the past.''
Frank urged lawmakers to reject the GOP bill and instead move to permanently ban new drilling off U.S. coasts and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Conservative and industry groups support the bill.
"We can continue making the Strategic Petroleum Reserve the nation's sole response to future disruptions, or we can also utilize more of the vast oil supplies sitting beneath the lands and offshore areas currently kept off limits by the president,'' the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other conservative groups said in a letter to Congress.
The Treasury Department estimates that release of oil from the emergency stockpile lowered prices at the pump by up to 40 cents per gallon. Gasoline prices averaged about $3.50 per gallon on Thursday, down from just over $5 per gallon at their peak in June, according to the AAA auto club.
Morris Rodgers accused Biden of using the reserve to "cover up his failed policies" that she said are driving up energy prices and inflation. Average gas prices are up more than 30 cents from a month ago and are higher than when Biden took office in January 2021, she and other Republicans noted.
"Millions of Americans are paying more at the pump as a result of the Biden administration's radical 'rush-to-green' agenda that has shut down American energy,'' McMorris Rodgers said.
Granholm, citing thousands of unused leases by oil companies, said GOP claims of obstructionism on drilling were off-base. "There's nothing standing in the way of domestic oil and gas production,'' she said, a claim McMorris Rodgers disputed.
"There are plenty of barriers to unleashing domestic oil and gas production, including burdensome regulations and this administration's discouragement of financial investment in domestic oil and gas industries,'' she said, noting that U.S. oil production is well below its 2019 peak of 13 million barrels of oil a day.