Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, and Deputy Assistant to the President Heather Zichal, 3/12/12
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for coming today. As you can see, I have guests with me. I'm proud and happy to have with me, on my left, the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar; and on my right, Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President and a top advisor on energy policy to the President. They're here to talk about the Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, the one-year progress report that was provided to the President today.
What I'd like to do, as you know when I have visitors like this, is have them speak to you for a few moments at the top for you to address the questions you have on their issues at the top, and then we can allow them to exit and I'll take questions on other subjects.
And with that I think I'll turn it over to Heather and we'll get started.
MS. ZICHAL: Thank you. As Jay said, the President today received a new progress report showcasing the administration's historic achievements in securing our energy future. The accomplishments in the report, which represent the efforts of six federal agencies, underscore the administration's commitment over the past three years promoting an all-hands-on-deck, all-of-the-above approach to American energy and building a more secure energy future.
I want to discuss a couple of the highlights. A year ago, the President set a bold but achievable goal of reducing oil imports by a third in little over a decade. Thanks to booming U.S. oil and gas production, more efficient cars and trucks, and a world-class refining sector, we've already cut net imports by 10 percent or 1 million barrels a day in the last year alone. And with the new fuel economy standards the President announced last year, we're on pace to meet our goal by the end of the decade.
Speaking of those fuel economy standards, the Obama administration has put in place the first-ever efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks. And as many of you know, we proposed the toughest fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles in U.S. history, requiring an average performance of 55 miles per gallon by 2025. Over time, these new standards will save consumers more than $8,000 over the life of the program.
We've also doubled renewable energy generation, developed advanced alternative fuels, and supported cutting-edge research and development in clean energy technologies.
To speak a little bit more about our role in expanding domestic oil and gas production is Secretary Salazar.
SECRETARY SALAZAR: Thank you very much, Heather.
I think it's important for all of us to note that the domestic oil production is at an 8-year high in the United States of America. Domestic gas production is at the highest level that we have seen in recent memory. And as Heather just said, we are importing the lowest amount of oil that we have in 16 years to the United States of America.
For me, from my time as a U.S. senator and watching this debate now over the last 30 years, remembering back in 2008 when we were importing 57 percent of our oil from foreign countries to today when, in 2011, we're importing only 45 percent, is a dramatic achievement and one that we are very proud of.
On the level of activity that we have underway in the United States, we had a 55-percent increase in the number of rigs that we're operating onshore for both oil and gas, as well as a significant number operating in the Outer Continental Shelf, including in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Gulf of Mexico is back to work again and oil and gas production is taking place there.
On federal lands and water, we have moved forward in the last three years with a 13-percent increase in oil and gas production. Just from the federal lands themselves, gas production in 2011 was one of the best years that we've had in the last decade. And the acreage that is being allowed to be developed by industry now includes about 72 million acres, both on the land and in the sea, where they currently are not developing. That is 72 million acres that have been leased to oil and gas companies where they currently are not developing.
We have moved forward to continue the robust, all-of-the-above energy strategy which the President directed us to do so, by continuing to lease in the Outer Continental Shelf as well as onshore. In 2010, we leased over 34 million acres of oil and -- we offered to lease 34 million acres of area in the Outer Continental Shelf. Oil and gas companies only leased 2.4 million acres of those offered acres. In 2011, at a lease sale that I conducted in New Orleans, we offered to lease 21 million acres. It was a highly productive lease sale in terms of the amount of money that came in to the American taxpayer. At the end of the day, about a million acres were leased by the oil and gas companies. And in 2012, this summer, we plan on moving forward with the additional lease sale of over 30 million acres.
Onshore -- just to make a quick comment about our continued efforts to lease out the millions of acres of the public estate for oil and gas production -- oil and gas companies today are sitting on 7,000 permits that have been issued to oil and gas companies where they could move forward immediately and start producing those leases.
Just a quick word on the renewable energy program, which Heather spoke about for just a minute. This President has really led a renewable energy revolution, which we are very proud of. The amount of renewable energy that has been produced here in the United States has now doubled in the last three years. We're proud that in the Department of the Interior and through the public lands of America, that we have permitted 29 solar, geothermal and wind projects in the last three years. We are on target to meet the President's direction that we get to 10,000 megawatts of power, which will power over 3 million homes by the end of the year.
And with that I'll turn it back over to Jay.
MR. CARNEY: So what I'll do, I'll call on folks. And again, if you have questions for Secretary Salazar, Heather Zichal, let's do those now, and then I'll stick around for other subjects.
Q Secretary Salazar, you've said that all options are on the table in tackling the high gasoline prices. Could you discuss the conditions under which you'd consider a release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve?
SECRETARY SALAZAR: I will just say that when you look at the history of the SPR, it was first used by President George H. Bush in the Gulf War I; again used by President George W. Bush during Katrina. And so I think when you look at these issues -- and Jay can speak more to this -- but I think all options are on the table because the President obviously feels the pain that the American people are facing with respect to gas prices. But I would say again -- this is probably the most important point, Alister -- when you look back from the formation to OPEC and even before then, you’ve had price shocks that have occurred in this country now over a dozen times. And every time you have oil and gas price shocks occurring, you have all the political rhetoric and the country rising to the highest volume that it could be raised.
What this President has done from day one is to move forward with a kind of energy policy and strategy that includes the all-of-the-above energy program that we’re implementing because that’s the only way that we’re going to get to a point where we stop having the kinds of price shocks and disruptions that we’ve been seeing since the formation of OPEC and, in fact, even before the formation of OPEC.
Q So does a rise in price meet the strategic threshold for release from the SPRO?
SECRETARY SALAZAR: I’m going to have Jay answer the question because he has been working more specifically on that issue. Want to take it?
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Alister, as you know, the President has said -- as the Secretary just said -- that he looks at all options and all options remain on the table in terms of a strategy to deal with the near-term issue of high gas prices. But we’re not going to talk about the SPR with any specificity.
And I would simply note that the President is very cognizant of the impact that the high prices at the pump are having on American families as they struggle to make ends meet. It’s a reminder of why it was so important to extend the payroll tax cut, which, by putting an average of $1,000 extra in the paychecks of the average American family is helping those families -- 160 million Americans -- helping them deal with higher oil and gas prices.
He is also making sure that the Department of Justice has reconstituted the working group that’s going to make sure that no fraud, speculation, price gouging is taking place in the country as a result of these higher oil prices. And he will continue to review other options.
He has also said, because it is a simple fact, that any politician who pledges to the American people that he or she has a 3-point plan to cut the price of gasoline to $2 or $2.50 is not on the level. You guys know it. Such a plan does not exist, at least not such a plausible plan. The global price of oil is affected by a variety of factors, some of which are well beyond the control of any administration, and they include growth in emerging countries like China and India, Brazil, as well as unrest in the Middle East and other areas of the world. That’s why the President is focused on the things that we can control, the things that Secretary Salazar and Heather were talking about in terms of an all-of-the-above energy approach.
Next question. Ed.
Q Mr. Secretary, you said oil production is up, including on federal land. The Republican line continues to be that it’s up on private lands but not on public lands that you control, or public waters. Are you putting those stats together to get production is up, or do you have stats they don’t have? We’re trying to sort out who’s right, because Republicans keep saying production is not up on federal land, it’s up on private land.
And then just more broadly, how do you answer -- they say repeatedly that these are Bush administration policies that increased drilling. Jay has previously said -- acknowledged that’s the case but also that this President has increased drilling as well. How do you sort all that out?
SECRETARY SALAZAR: Ed, I would say that those attacks are simply wrong. The fact of the matter is that we are producing more from public lands, both oil and gas, both onshore as well as offshore, than at any time in recent memory. And when you look back at the year of 2009, 2010, 2011, we’ve continued to make millions and millions of acres of the public estate available both on the land as well as on the sea.
Even after having dealt with the national crisis of the Deepwater Horizon, the President and his administration have stood up a safe and robust program to continue to explore and develop the sweet spot of America, and that’s the Gulf of Mexico, where about a third of our oil and natural gas come from every year. And today, when you go out to the Gulf, you will find that there are more rigs working there than at any recent time in memory.
And the fact of the matter is, just in the last 12 months we’ve issued over 61 permits just to drill in the deepwater, about 100 to drill in the shallow water.
So we have more of that coming. When you think about Alaska, where the National Petroleum Reserve had essentially been off limits because of bureaucracies that have happened during Republican and Democratic administrations of the past, this administration has essentially solved the problems so that we’re going to be seeing development in the NPRA for the first time in history.
So, for those who say that this President and his administration have turned back the clock on allowing our public lands to be used for oil and natural gas production, they simply are wrong.
MS. ZICHAL: I think I might just add to that by stating that the numbers speak for themselves in terms of oil and gas production going up every year since the President has been in office. But as the President has also acknowledged, we’re not at a point where we can drill our way out of this problem. That’s why the report and all of the policies that this administration have been working on since day one -- from energy efficiency to alternative fuels -- have been a top priority, administration wide.
MR. CARNEY: Mara.
Q The President often says there’s no silver bullet to bring gas prices down in the short term, but he has called on Congress to get -- do away with subsidies for oil and gas companies. Do you guys have some kind of estimate of how, if those subsidies were gone, it would affect prices at the pump? Or is it just a fairness issue?
MS. ZICHAL: I think, from our perspective, it’s a fairness issue. At this point in time, when we’re making difficult decisions about the budget and where to make investments and where to cut, the fact that oil and gas companies are bringing in record profits and at the same time getting $4 billion in subsidies annually, those subsidies should be repealed. And the President has called for that and I believe the Senate will be acting soon to vote on this issue as well.
Q And he’s not arguing that people would -- there would be some kind of a connection between that and prices going down?
MS. ZICHAL: Correct.
MR. CARNEY: Any more for -- yes, Steve.
Q If production is going up every year, why is gas heading toward $5 or $6 a gallon? I mean, do -- the laws of supply and demand don’t apply anymore?
SECRETARY SALAZAR: Here is the reality, and I think all of you in this room are smart students of history, and so I think when you look back at history, back to -- all the way back to 1857, but bring it into the post-World War II era, you see the price shocks for both oil and gas that have occurred in this country and the different responses that are made. And those responses have been going on since the formation of OPEC, the Gulf War I, and a whole host of other things that have happened. And what the reality is, is that the oil prices and the gas prices that we pay here in the United States are set on the global market. We don’t set them and we don’t control them. This President and this Congress can’t control those prices because they’re set on the global market.
But what has failed for the last four years is that no one until President Obama came into office has really embarked on an all-of-the-above energy strategy, because that’s ultimately what will be the insulation against these ups and downs and these price shocks.
So when we talk about an all-of-the-above energy strategy, what we’re talking about is, yes, we will produce more domestically, as we have shown we have done in the last three years; but, yes, we will use less, in the way that we’ve done with the President’s action in creating a much more fuel-efficient fleet system here in the United States of America; and, yes, we will move forward with alternative energies and alternative fuels like bio-refineries or the powering of much of our electrical needs in the United States; with what we’re doing with solar, geothermal and other forms of renewable energy. And it’s the commitment to sustain over time the all-of-the-above energy strategy that ultimately will help us deal with this issue, which otherwise is outside of the control of the United States.
MR. CARNEY: Dave and then Alexis.
Q The President has been talking about this sort of more patient or longer-term approach, all-of-the-above strategy for a while now, but the new poll out today from The Washington Post and ABC News shows that two-thirds of the public disapproves with the President’s handling of the gas issue -- gas price issue and that only 26 percent approve of the way he’s handled this. Is there -- you guys continue to say all options are on the table, but doesn’t this say that people want more immediate action, and what do you tell those folks?
MR. CARNEY: Dave, if I could, I think the fact of the matter is the President, the administration is not focused on polling data. We are obviously aware that Americans are paying a very high price when they fill up their gas tanks. And the President is focused on that and concerned about it and understands the kind of impact that has on hardworking American families who are trying to make ends meet. That’s why he is focused on a broadly cast economic policy that includes a payroll tax cut to 160 million Americans that gives them extra money in their pockets to help make ends meet; a jobs-focused policy that increases employment, increases economic growth; and is looking at specific alternatives and approaches to deal with both our short-term and our long-term energy situation.
But it is a fact -- and this goes to the question that Steve had about why the price of oil is up -- that if drilling were the answer, if increasing drilling were the answer in the United States to lowering prices at the pump, we would be seeing lower prices at the pump, because under President Obama, we have increased significantly domestic oil and gas production. That is a fact.
What also effects, obviously, the international price of oil is economic growth in China, India, Brazil, other emerging countries, economic growth around the world. The fact is, the United States is growing, other parts of the world are growing; that increases the demand for oil around the world, and that has an impact on the price globally.
Of course, also unrest and uncertainty in the Middle East, whether it’s Iran or Syria or Libya last year, has an effect, and these are all factors that we have to take into account as we make policy, and only reinforces the imperative that we do everything we can to reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy, which is why this President is focused on an all-of-the-above approach.
Let’s take two more here. Alexis.
Q Mr. Secretary, you just said that the administration was successful in solving some of the problems so that oil production can take place in Alaska. And my question is, do you feel confident that the administration could resolve similar problems and impediments so that Keystone could take place under this administration’s watch?
SECRETARY SALAZAR: Let me just say something about Alaska first. I think the NPRA has basically been off limits for a long time. But because we’ve been able to move forward, we expect ConocoPhillips actually to start a play there in the not too distance future in terms developing the NPRA.
And also I think in the months ahead, we’re in the midst of reviewing what will happen up in the Arctic Seas, as well; have not made the final decisions there. But those have been debated for a very long time, but I think they are indicators that the administration has tried to look for oil and gas production for a lot of different specifics related to the country and its energy needs, but also to Alaska and the TransAlaska Pipeline.
On the Keystone pipeline, I would just say this. The President never reached a judgment on the merits because it didn't come here. It was at the State Department and they never reached a judgment on the merits. You had a Republican governor who I know who was very opposed to the initial configuration of that pipeline, and we’re still waiting to receive the application on the new pipeline. And so I think if people were to put politics aside, what they would say is TransCanada should come forward, put its proposed pipeline out on the table, and then have the process engaged so that it can be formally evaluated and a decision can be made on the merits.
MS. ZICHAL: And I would just add to that, one of the things we were encouraged by is the fact that the Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur section of the pipeline will be going forward. And from our perspective, that's certainly an opportunity to create jobs but also to address an energy challenge. In Cushing, we have a glut of oil. We’ll be able to move that oil more efficiently and effectively. And that's a portion of the pipeline that's not controversial that we can get started. The President has asked -- or the federal government has a rule that we expedite the work that we have to do and we’re committed to doing that.
But again, that is one pipeline, and this administration has actually approved a number of oil and gas pipelines, including one from Canada. So whether it’s oil and gas, or what we’ve done in the renewable sector, or with our infrastructure, this administration has a record of success.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, sir, distinguished gentleman in the back.
Q Yes, I was wondering what the administration calculates -- uncertainty in the Middle East to be in the price of a barrel of oil today? The API says it’s 15 percent. I hear it’s much higher.
MS. ZICHAL: I don't think I can tell you specifically what that number is. But as Jay has mentioned, what we’re seeing today -- and certainly the President recognizes the pain that families are seeing at the pump when they're already struggling to make ends meet -- that those outside forces, including what we’re seeing in terms of growth and demand from emerging economies -- China and India -- with millions of new drivers on the road, as well as the increased tensions in the Middle East -- we know those are driving up prices, and we know that’s having an impact on American consumers. And that’s why the President has directed his Cabinet to take all actions available to help address these challenges in the near term.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you, all. Thanks very much, sir. Thank you, Heather.
Okay, with that, we can move on to other subjects or even stay on this subject.
Ben, do you have a question?
Q Yes, a couple about the civilians in Afghanistan who were killed by the American soldier. Did you have a statement on that that you wanted to read, or should I just jump in?
MR. CARNEY: No, go ahead.
Q Okay. So, first of all, is this incident one that the President fears puts Americans in jeopardy there?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President is always concerned about the well-being and welfare of Americans stationed overseas, especially in a place like Afghanistan -- both men and women in uniform, as well as our civilian personnel. And that is certainly the case in Afghanistan.
For specifics about what actions may be being taken by the military or by the civilian presence there, I would refer you to the State Department or the Defense Department specifically with regards to the aftermath of this incident. But you can be sure that the President remains very concerned about that and will continue to be so.
Q Does this incident affect the President’s thinking at all about the pace of withdrawal of American troops?
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s important to remember, Ben, that the President’s policy in Afghanistan -- which was announced after a very careful and thorough review of a war there that had, under the previous administration, begun to drift, that lacked a coherent set of priorities and goals -- has been to focus on our number-one priority, which is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, and in service of that objective, to help stabilize Afghanistan to the point where Afghan security forces can begin to take over responsibility for the safety and security of the country.
Because, after all, there is one reason why U.S. forces were sent to Afghanistan, and that is because the United States was attacked on September 11th -- September 11, 2001 -- in a plot that was hashed in Afghanistan by al Qaeda leaders. That remains his objective, and that has not changed.
And it is important to remember that as part of that strategy, the President has been, and ISAF forces have been drawing down already -- after the surge in forces, have been drawing down, as announced previously. And that will continue, as will be discussed in Chicago when NATO ministers meet and NATO heads of state meet -- that process will continue, so that in accordance with NATO policy set in Lisbon, the Afghans will take over control for the security of their country by the end of 2014.
The pace of that withdrawal will depend on a variety of factors that will certainly be discussed in Chicago at the NATO meeting, and will be discussed running up to Chicago and in the aftermath of Chicago. And it will be determined by a variety of factors related to the situation on the ground. But it is important in the aftermath of this terrible and tragic incident to remember why we are there and what our objectives are in terms of the United States' national security.
Q You keep drawing it back to that broader objective, which I understand. But in the meantime, you have the Koran burning incident -- the aftermath of that, Americans killed by the Afghans they were serving with. Now you have this tragedy of the American killing children in their sleep. When you say there are many factors that could affect when we pull out, can you tell us whether something like this would affect the President’s thinking?
MR. CARNEY: We have been in Afghanistan for more than a decade. Thanks to the President’s focus of our policy and strategy on eliminating al Qaeda, we are in the process of withdrawing our forces as we turn over responsibility for security to the Afghan security forces. We have seen difficult challenges in Afghanistan before, during the course of these 10 years, and as recently as in the wake of the inadvertent burning of the Koran not long ago. And the fact is that even in the aftermath of that, in our negotiations and consultations with the Afghanistan government, we resumed our work on the Strategic Partnership, and resolved difficult, long-negotiated detention issues to sign an extremely important memo of understanding just last Friday with regards to transfer of control of detention facilities over to the Afghans.
And I bring that up only to point out that we will continue to have very direct and important negotiations with the Afghan government as we pursue a strategy that is designed to bring our troops home as we achieve our objectives, and to turn over increasingly responsibility for security in Afghanistan to the Afghans.
Yes, and then Jake.
Q Jay, thanks. Just to be clear, will there be any review of U.S.-Afghan policy in light of the killings on Sunday in Afghanistan?
MR. CARNEY: There is an investigation underway already into the events that happened, and the tragic killings of Afghan civilians. And I would refer you to the Defense Department and ISAF for more details about that.
As tragic as these events are, the strategy is focused on disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda; stabilizing Afghanistan so that Afghan security forces can take responsibility for the security of their own country, which would allow us to continue to draw down our forces. And that is the strategy and the policy that the President is implementing.
I’m sure there will be discussions ongoing between U.S. military leaders as well as civilian leaders in Afghanistan and the Afghan government in the wake of this incident. But our strategic objectives have not changed and they will not change. And we will continue to discuss with our Afghan counterparts the need to implement our strategy and develop that Strategic Partnership that will allow us ultimately to turn over responsibility to the Afghans.
Q Is the President worried that the incident could harm his own standing with the American people who are worried about America’s role in Afghanistan?
MR. CARNEY: The President is focused on the national security interests of this country. And when he was campaigning for this office he made clear that if elected President he would refocus attention on our efforts in Afghanistan -- attention which had flagged because of the focus on Iraq under the previous administration -- because he felt that our number-one objective in the wake of 9/11 should be to eliminate al Qaeda.
The development and implementation of his Afghanistan strategy was meant to do just that: refocus our priorities, make clear what we are in Afghanistan to do, and make clear that we are not there to do more than that. He has focused very clearly on the implementation of that strategy, and it has, I think by any standards, met with some success with regards to diminishing al Qaeda. But that fight continues. And this President is committed to fulfilling his responsibility as Commander-in-Chief to ensure that al Qaeda does not pose a threat to the United States or its citizens.
Jake, and then Alexis.
Q A couple weeks ago I asked you if you had any idea how many al Qaeda members there were in Afghanistan. It had been under a hundred a couple of years ago when then-CIA Director Panetta said. Do you have an updated number?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t. That’s probably an intelligence assessment that if I did have it I might not be able to share with you. But what I think was true then remains true now, which is that the region between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a focal point of our efforts, and that the goal of the Afghanistan strategy has been to both go after and remove from the battlefield leaders of al Qaeda, but also to create a situation in Afghanistan that makes it inhospitable to the hosting of al Qaeda in the future. And that effort continues.
Q Well, here’s the larger question. Even though the tens of thousands of U.S. troops who were there are brave and heroic and doing what they’re asked to do, do you think that the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now is actually making it more stable and less hospitable for al Qaeda, or is it doing the exact opposite?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have had success in the implementation of this strategy and making life a lot harder for al Qaeda. And that has been a direct result of the President’s approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I really don’t think anybody could doubt that.
There is no question that this is hard, that the situation in Afghanistan has been and remains difficult. And the challenges that our men and women face are significant. But it is important to remember that it is all done in the name of, and with a focus on the number-one priority, which is to enhance American national security interests by disrupting, dismantling and ultimately defeating al Qaeda. And the stabilization of Afghanistan -- of its government and the building up of its security forces -- is done in service of that goal. And that’s why the mission is so important.
It is not the case -- and this was debated at the time -- that our policy is or should be about trying to create a Jeffersonian ideal in Afghanistan. That’s not going to happen. And I know that’s not what you’re saying, but I’m just -- I’m making this point in the context of why the focus of the mission is so important.
Q One national security expert said to me, “We’ve reached our sell-by date there.”
MR. CARNEY: We’ve been there a long time. And the President has made clear that his policy is designed to allow us to draw U.S. forces down as we accomplish our goals there. And it is a very specific plan. It has a timetable attached to it, which some take issue with -- although you have to wonder why -- because he understands the impact that more than a decade of war has had on our armed forces and on the families of those who have sent men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan, on our economy. And that is why it was so important to him when he was developing in that -- that you remember, an Afghanistan strategy, that we get it right -- that we have the right priorities and the right focus, and a process in place by which to achieve our goals and draw down forces. And that is the President’s plan.
Q Right. But at this point, no concern from the White House that we -- that the presence of U.S. troops, even though most of them, almost all of them, are doing what they’re asked to do, is not doing more harm than good right now?
MR. CARNEY: I’m confident that we believe that our presence there is having the desired effect in the implementation and achievement of our objectives, the implementation of the plan and the achievement of the objectives. There are, obviously, difficult challenges that we face in Afghanistan and incidents like this do not make it any easier. No question.
I think I said Alexis, right? And then I’ll go to Dan.
Q What role does the President want the Afghanistan and our -- the government of Afghanistan, the people, to play in the investigation and then the meting out of justice related to this event?
MR. CARNEY: For the investigation and the specifics of that, I would refer you to the Defense Department and ISAF. The President is confident that, and believes it is important that there be accountability for what happened. And the Defense Department is clearly investigating this matter and I refer you to them for details.
Q -- about the role that he wants Afghanistan to be able to play?
MR. CARNEY: I have not. And I think that the United States military is investigating this matter and we have confidence in the Defense Department to handle it.
Q So, just to clarify again -- this shooting will not impact the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan?
MR. CARNEY: No, it will not, Dan, because the strategy is focused on the objectives that I have laid out a couple of times today and certainly previous to today. And those objectives haven’t changed. We will continue to work with the Afghan government, with Afghan forces in the implementation of our strategy.
We will investigate this tragic incident and make sure that there is accountability, and we will continue to pursue our strategic objectives in Afghanistan, which are about the U.S. national security interest and the protection of the United States, our personnel and our allies.
Q A lot has been said over the past about the trust between the U.S. forces there and the Afghan forces. Is there concern at all that this could further impact it -- the skepticism between the U.S. and Afghanistan?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would probably suggest that the best people to answer that question are at the Defense Department or in Afghanistan, both military and civilian. This is a challenging time, there is no question. The focus of our policy is designed to hand over greater authority to, and responsibility to, Afghan security forces and the Afghan government. I think that demonstrates that our interest is in -- is not in staying any longer than we have to. It is a strategy that fully respects the sovereignty of the Afghan nation and the Afghan people, and we will continue to focus on the implementation of that strategy, on the -- to continue to focus on taking the fight to al Qaeda. There is a reconciliation process, Afghan-led, that is an important element as we move forward and all of these aspects will continue.
Q Another matter here -- five counties in southern Illinois, I’m told, were denied disaster aid from FEMA and I’m wondering why.
MR. CARNEY: From Illinois?
Q From Illinois, yes, because of tornadoes and other storm damage there. They have requested disaster aid. It’s been denied, and I’m wondering if you could tell us why.
MR. CARNEY: Well, Dan, as you know, the process by which FEMA evaluates requests for disaster declarations is the same no matter which state makes the request, and the criteria that allow for the approval of a declaration for Kentucky, for example, are the same criteria that may result in a denial, at least for now, to another state, because they haven’t been met, and it is judged, based on those objective criteria, that the state in question has the wherewithal to handle storm recovery on its own. But FEMA has a lot of regional offices, a lot of presence on the ground in these effected states, and the evaluation process continues and our efforts at the federal level to assist those states that have been affected by these storms will continue.
Q Quick question. Is the President still planning on going to watch the basketball game tomorrow?
MR. CARNEY: His schedule has not changed.
Q Okay. And just to follow up on the Afghan questions because you seem to be saying two different things -- I just want to get this clear. First, you said today, it will not have any impact on the timetable, but earlier you said, the pace of the withdrawal will be determined by a variety of factors. We have to assume that this is one of the factors that the NATO ministers will discuss --
MR. CARNEY: Well, a couple of points. I think you’re finding a distinction that doesn’t exist. The focus of our overall strategy is not in reaction to a single event -- any more than it was two months ago. The evaluations of the pace of the drawdown will continue based on a variety of assessments made by U.S. military leaders as well as leaders of our ISAF partners. And I think my point to Dan was that this incident does not change the strategic imperative that is embodied in the President’s strategy.
Q Yes, but you said he wouldn’t change the timetable, which is quite different than the goals --
MR. CARNEY: Let me be clear. I do not believe that this incident will change the timetable of a strategy that was designed and is being implemented in a way to allow for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, to allow for the transfer of lead security authority over to the Afghans, and which -- a process that will be completed no later than the end of 2014.
And the discussions about the pace of that drawdown have been ongoing, as I think Secretary Panetta discussed not long ago, and as he was having discussions with fellow defense ministers, and will certainly be a subject of discussion among heads of state in Chicago at the NATO meeting there in May.
Kristen, and then I want to move around a little bit. Yes.
Q Thanks, Jay. Turning to Syria, you have said repeatedly that Assad’s fall is imminent, and yet, according to recent reports, U.S. senior intelligence officials have said that Assad actually holds a strong position in Syria. So do you continue to argue that his fall is imminent, and if so, how? What’s the --
MR. CARNEY: So recent reports of citing anonymous sources are saying whatever they’re saying? Look, we believe --
Q Well, and also we’ve seen the uptick in violence.
MR. CARNEY: Well, there’s no question that Assad continues his brutal assault on his own people. There is no doubt about that. We continue to believe that it is not a matter of if, but when, Assad will be removed, will remove himself from power. His legitimacy has certainly long since been lost.
And we are working with a broad coalition of partners around the globe who believe, as the United Nations Security Council resolution made clear, that there needs to be a transition in Syria. There needs to be, first, a cessation of the brutal assault on the Syrian people, and then a transition that allows for the greater fulfillment of the aspirations of the Syrian people. That continues to be our policy.
We’re not going to put a time by which that will happen. We will simply continue to work with our international partners to pressure Assad, to isolate him, to make the cost of his assault increasingly higher, and work in any way that we can to assist the Syrian people who are suffering greatly under his brutality.
Q And according to a Washington Post report, there have been more discussions about possible military intervention, possibly arming the opposition forces there. Can you confirm those reports?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think these are reports that were specific to the fact that, as is almost always the case in a situation like this when there are international crises or events, the Pentagon develops contingency plans. That is not the same as a policy decision. Our policy remains absolutely what it was, which is our belief that contributing to the further militarization of Syria is not a wise course of action right now. It could potentially lead down a dangerous road. And we are focused instead on what I just described to you, which is working with our international partners to, A, help provide whatever assistance -- humanitarian assistance we can to the Syrian people, as well as continuing to pressure and isolate Assad.
Let me just -- I don't know if Terri Gruca is here. Yes, Terri, did you have a question?
Q I do.
MR. CARNEY: From Austin, Texas.
Q Back to your energy policy talk. I know last week there were some congressional hearings about alternatives, and one gentleman in the crowd had talked about how alternatives are great in theory, but it’s difficult to get Americans to buy them, in part because they're so expensive right now. How do you fix that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President’s approach in his all-of-the-above energy policy is to invest in clean energy technologies so that they become industries that create jobs in this country, not just overseas, and in ways that help reduce the price of alternative energy. A good example is our increasing share of the international market in advanced battery technology. As greater breakthroughs are made in advance battery technologies, the cost of those batteries declines, which results in a reduced price for the vehicles that use those batteries, and obviously, that savings is passed on to the consumer.
It is simply a fact in the world that we live in that someone will dominate the alternative energy markets -- alternative energy industries like wind, solar, biofuels, advanced batteries. The President believes that those are quality industries that create well-paid jobs, and he believes they should be here in the United States; that we should not be -- we should not change our reliance on foreign sources of oil to a reliance on foreign sources of alternative energy. And moreover, we create those jobs here and we reduce our dependence on foreign sources. So it’s a win-win.
That's why we have to have this long-term strategy, because as he and others have said, we have 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, we consume 20 percent of the world’s oil. There is no way with those two facts in front of you that you can drill your way out of the problem that we have. You have to do more than just drill.
You have to drill. You have to increase drilling, you have to increase production; the President is committed to that. But you have to do everything else as well. And that includes not just advanced batteries or biofuels or wind and solar. It means granting the first permit to build a new nuclear power plant in the United States in 30 years, which this administration has done. It’s an all-of-the-above approach.
Q Some people argue that's why gas prices will not -- there’s not really a push to lower gas prices because you need gas prices to be high in order to get people to buy --
MR. CARNEY: That is categorically false. This President is absolutely committed to reducing -- to doing everything we can to mitigate the effect of higher gas prices on American families and to lower gas prices. What he is not willing to do is to look the American people in the eye and claim that there is a strategy by which he can guarantee the price of gas will be $2.50 at the pump. Any politician who does that is lying, because it just -- that strategy does not exist. It is a simple fact that there is no such plan that can guarantee the price of oil or the price at the pump.
You have to have an all-of-the-above approach, and that all-of-the-above approach can limit the effects or reduce the effects of high gas prices on Americans. It can also, importantly, reduce our dependence on foreign oil so that when there are fluctuations in the price of oil internationally, we are more insulated from the effect of that.
Q Thank you. Pat Roberts -- the highway bill in the Senate -- Pat Roberts has introduced a package of amendments that basically revisits that package that was defeated last week -- that was defeated last week. The President was making calls last week to make sure it was defeated. I was wondering if he’s making calls again on this.
MR. CARNEY: I don't have any additional calls to report. I would say, as I said then when that report emerged, that the President has conversations with members of Congress with some frequency, and we don't read all of them out.
Let me give others a chance. Mr. Knoller.
Q Jay, what was the reason for the President's meeting with Mayor Bloomberg a few weeks ago?
MR. CARNEY: They speak from time to time. The President appreciates the Mayor's insights into matters of policy. He appreciates the Mayor's leadership on issues like immigration, the economy, and other issues. And he enjoyed the lunch that they had here.
Q A job interview, perhaps, for a second term?
MR. CARNEY: It was not a job interview. (Laughter.) Absolutely not. No, they were focused on policy matters.
Q And what is the reason the President is taking Prime Minister Cameron to a basketball game?
MR. CARNEY: Well, because I think it's an opportunity for the President and the Prime Minister to spend some time together outside of the official trappings of Washington and the White House, and an opportunity for the President to show the Prime Minister a slice of American life. March Madness is just getting started. Some of us enjoy it quite a bit, many Americans do around the country, and he certainly looks forward to sharing that with Prime Minister Cameron. And I'll be happy to attend that event with them just to make sure everything goes -- (laughter) -- according to plan.
George, and then Jared.
Q Yes, two questions on Afghanistan. I wondered if you had any response to House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, who said in a speech, he said, "President Bush gave over 40 speeches about Iraq, trying to educate the country to understand what we're engaged in. President Obama has given three speeches about Afghanistan and he hasn't done anything to educate and bring people along."
MR. CARNEY: The President has spoken a great deal about Afghanistan and his policy in Afghanistan. I will leave the irony of the comparative there to others to assess. I would simply say that the President is focused on a strategy that's effective, that's in the national security interests of the United States, and that ensures that every bit of effort expended by American men and women in uniform and our civilian personnel over there is aimed at our strategic objective -- which is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda.
It was because of al Qaeda, because of the assaults on the United States on 9/11, that we sent U.S. forces to Afghanistan more than 10 years ago to begin with. And it is thanks to President Obama that we refocused our strategy on the reason why we were there to begin with. And it is because of that, that we are in the process of drawing down forces in Afghanistan, in a process of transferring responsibility for security to Afghan security forces, and in the process of supporting an Afghan-led process of reconciliation which has the hope of, or creates the hope of a political resolution in Afghanistan, which is absolutely required for the long-term stability of that country.
Q And also, a less substantive question -- how did it come about that the President was in the car when he had the conversation with Karzai? Is that just when the call was returned?
MR. CARNEY: I'll have to check on that, but that, I think, often is the case. Again, I don't know the specifics of this, but it often can be the case that in setting up a call with a foreign leader, especially when there's a great time difference, that when it goes through you want to make sure you get the call and you have the call, if it works for both leaders. That's why he sometimes has those conversations on Air Force One, and sometimes when he's in the car.
Is Greg Warmoth here? No? Okay.
Last one, Victoria.
Q Yes, actually, I think --
MR. CARNEY: Oh, sorry, Jared. Then you. Yes, go ahead. Victoria, then Jared, then I'm out of here.
Q The killings in Afghanistan happened a few days after a coalition helicopter killed several civilians. And Karzai is holding out on the partnership agreement for the end of night raids. Particularly in light of this recent killing and Karzai saying that this is unforgivable and possible intransigence in negotiations, are you willing to move on night raids?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer that question to the Defense Department, to ISAF, perhaps to the State Department. We're focused on implementing our strategy and doing so in a way that ensures the success of that strategy and the safety and security of American personnel both in Afghanistan and around the world. The specifics of the negotiations with the Afghans I'll leave to the Defense Department and the State Department.
Jared, I promised you. Yes.
Q Jay, one on Afghanistan. You gave the answer just now to George the mantra of "disrupt, dismantle, defeat" -- where in the priorities list is "do no harm"?
MR. CARNEY: We are in Afghanistan for a reason, and I have I think made clear what that reason is. If you're suggesting, as I think you might be, that the actions that happened yesterday were harmful, certainly they were. That's why we have made clear that that's a terrible and tragic incident, which will be fully investigated and there will be accountability for it. But that is not -- as the President made clear in his statement, it does not reflect -- the actions that seem to have taken place yesterday do not reflect the mission; they do not reflect the values or the professionalism of the American military men and women who are in Afghanistan, and they are tragic and unfortunate.
Q And I guess on -- one on basketball, a little bit lighter. I know that the President is going with the Prime Minister to this game. It's not the best game in the NCAA brackets. (Laughter.) Wouldn't he rather --
MR. CARNEY: Are you saying that Sirius might pay for a trip if we go to the Final Four or something?
Q I'm just saying there are a lot of -- Jay, if you want to talk about cross-promotional Sirius XM opportunities, I'd be happy to -- (laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Okay.
Q I don't know why the President isn't taking our Blackberry app with him golfing. (Laughter.) No, but seriously, why isn't he instead catching a little bit of, like, Bulls-Heat Wednesday night, skipping out a little bit early on the dinner. That would be much more fun for everybody, wouldn't it? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Well, we'll look at that option. But the --
Q All options are on the table.
MR. CARNEY: Look, this is -- Prime Minister Cameron is here tomorrow and Wednesday. This is the opportunity that presented itself. March Madness is a wonderful tradition in American sports and American culture, and the President very much looks forward to having the Prime Minister join him for this game.
Q So you're saying the President would rather watch this game than Bulls-Heat?
MR. CARNEY: I didn't say that, no.
Q Do you have anything on Wednesday's schedule about what they're going to do? Is there a news conference? Is there --
MR. CARNEY: We'll have to provide details for you. I'm sure there will be the traditional interaction with the press with the Prime Minister. There's a state dinner, of course, and bilateral meetings.
1:47 P.M. EDT