WASHINGTON — President Obama, facing voter anger over high gasoline prices and complaints from Republicans and business leaders that his policies are restricting the development of domestic energy resources, announced Saturday that he was taking several steps to speed oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters.
It was at least a partial concession to his critics at a time when consumers are paying near-record prices at the gas pump. The Republican-led House passed three bills in the last 10 days that would significantly expand and accelerate oil development in the United States, saying the administration was driving up gas prices and preventing job creation with antidrilling policies.
Administration officials said the president’s announcement, which included plans for expanded drilling in Alaska and the prospect of new exploration off the Atlantic coast, was intended in part to answer these arguments, signal flexibility and demonstrate his commitment to reducing oil imports by increasing domestic production.
But in fact the policies announced Saturday would not have an immediate effect on supply or prices, nor would they quickly open any new areas to drilling.
“These spikes in gas prices are often temporary,” Mr. Obama said, “and while there are no quick fixes to the problem, there are a few steps we should take that make good sense.”
The president’s turn to a domestic pocketbook issue comes after two weeks of intense focus on the killing of Osama bin Laden, terrorism more broadly and the multiple crises in the Middle East.
In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president said the administration would begin to hold annual auctions for oil and gas leases in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre tract on the North Slope of Alaska. The move comes after years of demands for the auctions by industry executives and Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat.
The administration will also accelerate a review of the potential environmental impact of drilling off the southern and central Atlantic coast and will consider making some areas available for exploration. The move is a change from current policy, which puts the entire Atlantic seaboard off limits to drilling until at least 2018.
The president also said he would extend leases already granted for drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico that had been frozen after last year’s BP spill. The extension will allow companies time to meet new safety and environmental standards without having to worry about their leases expiring.
And the government will provide incentives for oil companies to more quickly exploit leases they already hold. Tens of millions of acres onshore and offshore are under lease but have not been developed.
The moves come after the House passed a series of bills that would force the administration to move much further and faster to open public lands and waters to oil and gas development. The administration formally opposed the bills as written, but officials said Friday that the White House might accept some provisions in the bills, like extending the frozen leases in the gulf and in Alaska.
Responding to the shift by the administration, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, said, “The president just conceded what his party on Capitol Hill still denies: more American energy production will lower costs and create jobs. This reversal is striking, since his administration has consistently blocked American-made energy.”
Although Mr. Buck characterized the policy changes as “not terribly substantial,” he added that they should “pave the way for legislation, like the bills the House passed in the past two weeks, to reduce the damage from the restrictions he imposed in the past.”
Congressional Democrats, who are largely united in their opposition to the Republican “drill here, drill now” legislation, said the president’s proposals made sense as part of a broader policy that includes revoking tax breaks for the oil industry and encouraging companies to drill on the public land they already control.