With gas prices rising, Obama announces new gas task force

President Obama pauses during a town hall meeting April 21, 2011, in Reno, Nev. AP Photo

With gas prices nationwide averaging close to $4 per gallon, President Obama announced today that the U.S. attorney general is creating a task force to root out any cases of fraud or manipulation in the oil and gas markets that might affect gas prices.

"We are going to make sure that no one is taking advantage of the American consumers for their own short-term gain," Mr. Obama said at a town hall meeting at the renewal energy company ElectraTherm in Reno, Nevada.

At the current prices, the average American will pay about $750 more for gas this year, per car, CBS News' Bill Whitaker reports, and some 75 percent of Americans say they are now or soon will be pinching pennies.

Mr. Obama said he could relate.

"I remember before I was president the last time gas prices went up this high -- it's tough," he said. "Maybe you don't have the money to buy a new car that gets better gas mileage... I've been there. It hurts...This gas issue is serious."

The new gas task force, called the Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group, will include representatives from the Justice Department, the National Association of Attorneys General, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy.

"If illegal conduct is responsible for increasing gas prices, state and federal authorities should take swift action," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement today.

In addition to monitoring the causes of rising gas prices, Mr. Obama said that it's time to put more investments in alternative energy sources. ElectraTherm, where the president spoke today, received $982,000 from the Energy Department last year for research and development in alternative energy production. The award was part of a $20 million Energy Department initiative to develop geothermal technologies.

Watch Bill Whitaker's report on gas prices in the video at left.

The president, referring to Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's proposed 2012 budget, said he rejected the proposal to cut clean energy spending by 70 percent.

"We're not going to reduce our deficit by gutting our investment in clean energy and medical research and basic science," Mr. Obama said today. "I refuse to make that choice."

"I want new technologies invented here," he continued. "I want companies like ElectraTherm to set up shop here in America, and hire American workers, and build American products. That's the future we deserve."

Instead, Mr. Obama said, Washington should cut the $4 billion in subsidies that to oil companies "making record profits."

"These folks don't need more incentives," he said, adding that his administration has sought to encourage domestic oil production.

"Instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy sources, let's invest in tomorrow's," he added.

The president argued that it's not worth sacrificing investments in infrastructure in order to cut the budget deficit. As he did earlier this week, Mr. Obama invoked the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35-W bridge in Minneapolis while criticizing Republicans' proposed cuts to infrastructure.

"Remember what happened in Minnesota? where that bridge just collapsed?" Mr. Obama asked. "There are bridges like that all across the country."

While experts say America's aging infrastructure is a significant problem, the bridge collapse in Minnesota, which killed 13 people, was found to have been caused primarily by a design flaw.

The president's town hall today was part of a three-day west-coast tour that included town hall events (the other was in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday) and six fundraisers for his 2012 reelection campaign.

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