A sign at an Exxon gas station in Northwest Washington boasts gas prices of $4.559 for regular and $4.849 for supreme on March 7, 2011. Unrest in Libya and other oil-producing countries has raised a barrel of oil over $100 causing the price of gasoline to shoot up over the last few weeks. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg. | License Photo
WASHINGTON, March 11 (UPI) -- U.S. President Obama said Friday he would tap emergency oil reserves if needed, while reassuring Americans soaring gas prices wouldn't affect economic growth.
"Everybody should know that, should the situation demand it, we are prepared to tap the significant stockpile of oil that we have in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve," Obama said during a news conference.
Economists and investors such as Warren Buffett believe the country "should still expect solid growth and strong private sector job creation this year," Obama said.
The national average price for a gallon of regular gas Thursday was $3.53, AAA said, up from $3.12 a month ago and $2.77 a year ago.
It's not a shortage in supply, but uncertainty in the market, the president said.
"We are confident in our ability to fill any gaps in the Middle East supply," Obama said.
He wouldn't discuss what prices would trigger a release of the Strategic Oil Reserve, saying, "We will tap the oil reserve if there's a severe disruption."
Obama said he asked Attorney General Eric Holder to work with appropriate agencies and state attorneys general "to monitor for price gouging to make sure that nobody is taking advantage of working families at the pump."
America also is better prepared for oil supply disruptions than previously, he said. The country is using 7 percent less oil than in 2005 "partly because our economy as a whole is more efficient," Obama said. "We're adapting. We're producing more oil and we're importing less."
But as long as the U.S. economy depends on foreign oil, "we'll always be subject to price spikes," Obama said.
The country must increase its access to secure energy supplies in the near term and make the economy more energy-efficient and energy-independent over the long haul, he said, starting with continuing to boost domestic production of oil and gas.
"Last year American oil production reached its highest level since 2003," Obama said, contrary to arguments that "might make for a good political sound bite."
House Speaker John Boehner at a news conference Thursday blamed Obama for rising gasoline prices.
"The Obama administration has consistently blocked American energy production," Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
"We are encouraging offshore exploration and production," Obama said Friday. "We're just doing it responsibly."
The Interior Department has been directed to determine how many leases held by the oil and gas industry aren't being used "so we can encourage companies to develop the leases they hold and produce American energy," Obama said.
In addition, the administration is working to gather data on potential gas and oil resources off the mid- and South Atlantic Ocean and working with the industry to explore new frontiers of production, safety measures and containment technology.
Concerning imported oil, Obama said his administration was working to strengthening key energy relationships with other producer nations.
While these actions help in the short- and medium-term, they are not a long-term solution.
"If we want to secure our long-term prosperity and protect the American people from more severe oil shocks in the future, the way to do it is to gradually reduce demand and then do everything we can to break our dependence on oil," Obama said, such as building energy-efficient vehicles and diversifying the country's energy portfolio.
"We've got to work together -- Democrats, Republicans and everybody in between -- to finally secure America's energy future," Obama said. "I don't want to leave this for the next president and none of us should want to leave it for our kids."