|Obama to tout natural gas benefits in State of Union|
By Ayesha Rascoe and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will encourage the country's booming natural gas output in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, while defending his administration's energy record, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Obama was expected to devote a significant portion of his speech slated for 9 p.m. EST Tuesday calling for a "new era for American energy," which will include promoting domestic natural gas production, according to documents provided to Democratic party sources.
U.S. natural gas output has grown sharply in recent years thanks to advances in drilling techniques that have unlocked massive shale reserves.
Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of domestic natural gas output, pointing to natural gas as a possible area of compromise for Democrats and Republicans.
But, the administration has also raised the ire of the oil and gas industry by moving forward with new regulations of the drilling that companies argue could hamper future development. He has also twice delayed the Canada-to-Texas Keystone oil sands pipeline.
Environmentalists and some landowners near shale gas wells argue that the recent shale boom is polluting air and water and needs greater federal oversight.
Obama administration officials have said that while natural gas production is important to the U.S. energy future, it must be done safely.
The White House is weighing including a natural gas production goal the speech, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.
Obama's address will also focus on the importance of not sacrificing environmental protections and investments in clean energy during this time of budget constraints and concerns about job creation, said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund.
"We're anticipating that the president will make a pointed defense of the fact that taking care of our environment and building clean energy future is another form of investment in America's economic future," Holstein said.
Transforming the U.S. economy by investing in clean energy innovation has been a central theme for the administration since Obama took office in 2009.
Republicans have blasted Obama for focusing on clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, to the detriment of fossil fuels, which they argue are still needed to fuel the U.S. economy.
The high profile collapse of Solyndra, the solar panel maker, after receiving more than $500 million in loan aid from the Obama administration also provided ammunition to critics who say the government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the energy sector.
Still, Obama officials contend that the United States can not afford to fall behind developing nations such as China and India when it comes to green energy.
Facing an election in November, Obama will likely tout his commitment to energy independence.
"President Obama can tell a very positive story about his energy policies," said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank, Center for American Progress.
Heather Zichal, a White House adviser on energy and climate change, released an editorial last week highlighting rising domestic oil and natural gas production, as well as falling oil imports under Obama.
Zichal highlighted proposed fuel economy standards that would push average fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon across U.S. fleets in the coming decade, cutting oil consumption by an estimated 2.2 million barrels a day by 2025.
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