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The return of "drill, baby, drill"?

A $5 per gallon price is posted at a gas station in Belmont, Calif., March 9, 2011. AP Photo

Updated 5:10 p.m. Eastern Time

As gas prices skyrocketed during the 2008 presidential campaign, a chant was often heard at events for the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin: "Drill, baby, drill!"

Now that gas prices have once again risen dramatically amid unrest in the Middle East - they are near $4 per gallon in many areas, and the average across the country has gone above $3.50 per gallon - the Republican call for domestic oil drilling has returned. And with it comes criticism of the Obama administration for not doing enough to ease the burden for Americans who have no choice but to fill up the tank.

"The Obama Administration has consistently blocked American energy production that would lower costs and create new jobs," House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday. "They've cancelled leases for new exploration, jeopardized new nuclear energy, and imposed a de facto drilling moratorium. They've even pushed a 'cap and trade' national energy tax that the president himself admitted would cause energy costs to 'skyrocket.'"

Boehner was unveiling what he called the American Energy Initiative, a plan that he says will lower gas prices and create new jobs. It entails expanding American energy production, reversing government policies that he says drive up gas prices, and embarking on an "all of the above" strategy for domestic energy production.

John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Boehner's comments were just one element of a GOP push to attack the Obama administration on gas prices. On Fox Business Network Thursday, Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso said, "what we're doing is spending millions and millions of dollars and sending that money overseas to people who want to blow us up instead of doing what you know we should do, which is exploring for energy offshore, on federal land, and exploring in Alaska."

Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings (R-WA) said Thursday the instability in the Middle East underscores the need to stop "sitting on all these resources."

Added GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana earlier this week: "What about the Gulf of Mexico? What about all of our other vast energy resources that we are taking off the table and shutting down?"

Republicans are also reacting angrily to calls in some quarters for an increase in gas taxes. Here's California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, also on Fox Business: "I don't know what planet these people are on, but they are nuts."

He added: "There is a movement in this country, in the halls of Congress, today, by the far left, where they do not want to drill, they want to raise the price of gas because they believe if they do this, this is how you force people on to metro systems, force people on to high-speed rail, force people on to their bicycles and you know, the bad part is I'm not sure that any of these people have they ever had to work in the real world."

Haley Barbour
Gov. Haley Barbour speaks at a meeting of the Mississippi Energy Policy Institute in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011. Barbour says the Gulf Coast oil spill occurred because the companies involved deviated from industry standards, not because of the inherent risk of drilling offshore. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The claim that the Obama administration wants to raise the price of gas has also been made by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a potential GOP presidential candidate who said last week that the administration is seeking to do so to force consumers to buy more energy-efficient automobiles. Barbour cites comments in September 2008 by Steven Chu, who is now energy secretary, that "we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe." (Mr. Obama has disavowed those comments.)

The White House has a simple response to these charges: Why, if it is so opposed to domestic energy production, did 2010 see the largest increase in such production since 2003?

White House press secretary Jay Carney disputed Boehner's comments at his press briefing Thursday and pointed out that the Obama administration has issued 37 new offshore shallow water oil drilling permits since the BP oil spill, as well as one deep water permit. He said the administration is committed to more oil production in addition to pursuing other forms of energy production.

According to the government, domestic production rose 3 percent last year, though as NPR notes, "Credit for the increase in onshore production probably belongs less to any administration policy than to advanced drilling techniques, and the higher oil prices that make them worthwhile."

Some Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing the administration to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to combat gas prices.

"The rapidly rising price of oil is threatening to imperil a fragile economic recovery and cause more hardship for Vermonters already struggling to make ends meet," says Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont. "As our three most recent presidents demonstrated, tapping the reserve reduces prices significantly and immediately. In a time of escalating turmoil in the Middle East and rampant oil speculation in markets around the world, now is the time to tap the reserve."

Much of the nuance in the discussion over gas prices will likely be lost as the debate intensifies over the summer, when prices are expected to rise even further. And don't be surprised if those chants of "drill, baby, drill" once again becomes a staple of Republican campaign events in the next presidential campaign cycle.

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