Aboard Air Force One
En Route Chicago, Illinois
11:26 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Two announcements at the top. The first is the Vice President will be leading a delegation to attend the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis. Joining the Vice President as part of that delegation to Rome will be New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez; the Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi; and the President of Georgetown University Jack DeGioia.
I also want to give a little heads up on what we’re talking about today in Argonne. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Argonne National Lab just outside Chicago, Illinois. Those of you who dialed into yesterday’s conference call know that the President will be discussing one of the priorities he identified in his State of the Union address -- investing in American energy.
The Energy Security Trust that he’s highlighting today is a common-sense proposal to use some of the revenue that we obtain in the form of royalties from offshore oil and gas production and invest it in research dedicated to alternative forms of energy. This research furthers the goal identified by the President to make our country and our economy less dependent on foreign oil.
We’ve already made progress on this front with the so-called car rule that has increased fuel efficiency. According to a new EPA study, fuel economy has increased 16 percent over the last several years. And this isn’t just good for the environment, it also reduces the number of times -- the number of trips to the gas station for American families and for businesses. It also makes our economy a little less dependent on the fluctuation in the global price of oil, and it makes our country more secure and less dependent on energy from some volatile regions in the world.
But there is more that we can do in the form of advanced batteries, electric cars, and a few vehicles that are powered by biofuels or natural gas. That’s some of the research that’s being done at Argonne National Lab, and it’s research that we should invest in.
This idea was devised by some retired military leaders because of the good it would do for our national security, and by some prominent business leaders, including some Republicans, because it would benefit our economy and create jobs. So with all the talk about bipartisan compromise in Washington, D.C. the last couple of weeks, there’s no reason that Republicans in Congress can’t work with the President to get this done.
So you’ll hear a lot more from the President about that this afternoon.
And with that, I’ll take your questions.
Q I’d like to ask you about -- to respond to a couple of things going on at the CPAC conference. One is that gun control is becoming a major topic there, and they’re building some opposition to the President’s proposals on the Hill. Wayne LaPierre is going to be speaking there today. How is the White House planning to counter that opposition? Do you have some plans to get your supporters fired up in the way that they are getting today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we’re focused on right now is doing some of the things that the President talked about in the speech that he gave on this topic a couple of months ago. The first is we’re moving forward with the implementation of a range of executive actions that the President has committed his administration to take. He announced 23 of them back in January that would help us reduce gun violence in communities all across the country.
But we’re also engaged in a process with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to move forward some legislative remedies to this problem. A number of these proposals have strong bipartisan support in the Congress. They have that bipartisan support for good reason -- because there’s actually strong support across party lines out of the country for many of these proposals. Just to take one example, there’s plenty of polling data to indicate that closing loopholes in background checks actually has the support of about 90 percent of the American public.
So there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to act in bipartisan fashion on some common-sense measures that would reduce violence, gun violence in our communities. That said, the President has said repeatedly that he believes in the Second Amendment, that he believes the Second Amendment guarantees the right of law-abiding Americans to have firearms. And there is nothing in what the President has proposed either in the form of executive actions or in this legislative proposals that would take a firearm away from a law-abiding citizen.
So there’s plenty of common ground for us to seize, to move forward, that would reduce gun violence in our communities. And as the President said, this is a complex issue, but we shouldn’t let the complex, complicated nature of some of these remedies prevent us from taking action.
Q We haven’t heard very much from the President since the State of the Union on guns. Are we going to be seeing some more public engagement on this? Or are there things that he’s doing behind the scenes that maybe we don’t know about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it was -- actually, the last time that I was on Air Force One, the week of the State of the Union, where the President gave some pretty powerful remarks in his hometown of Chicago -- the last time that we were here. He went back to the neighborhood where he and his family live on the South Side of Chicago to talk about how gun violence has affected so many of the families there, and so many of the ways that we can address the ongoing problem of gun violence in those communities.
So the President has been engaged on these issues. I know that there have been -- in some of the conversations that the President has had over the last couple of weeks with rank-and-file members of the House and Senate, he’s talked about some of the legislative priorities that would reduce gun violence being a priority of his.
So this is something that the President is actively engaged on. Obviously, the Vice President has played a very prominent role in advancing this effort. And I think the fact that the President and the Vice President are both dedicated to this issue and are dedicating significant time to this issue is indication of just how important it is to this administration.
Q One other thing in CPAC is that Senator McConnell had some pretty pointed remarks in his prepared remarks today about the OFA fundraising, and said it’s not really the Republican Party that’s the party of millionaires and billionaires when President Obama is charging half a million dollars for donors to get into the White House. Can you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, in terms of OFA’s practices and I'd refer you to my colleagues over there at Organizing for Action. But the donors conference that they had in Washington this week did not take place at the White House. It was at the St. Regis Hotel, I believe, and some other places in Washington.
I guess what I would say in response is I’d urge you and, frankly, Americans all across the country to examine the policy priorities of congressional Republicans and the policy priorities of this administration and decide for yourself. You have congressional Republicans who have, time and time again, stood up to protect tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, wealthy Americans and well-connected corporations, in the face of a -- they prioritize those tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires over a balanced solution to our deficit challenges.
We can reduce our deficit if we're willing to ask millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more. The Republicans feel so strongly about protecting the tax benefits of millionaires and billionaires that they won't make progress on balanced deficit reduction.
There are a -- the President, on the other hand, has said if we're going to ask seniors, if we're going to ask veterans, if we're going to ask students, if we're going to ask middle-class families to make sacrifices to deal with our deficit challenges, then we also need to ask the same thing of millionaires and billionaires.
So I would encourage people to just take a look at the policy proposals that are being advanced by both sides and decide for themselves.
Q On the Keystone issue, he’s speaking about energy today, and when the President was visiting with Senate Republicans yesterday he had mentioned that he was going to be making a decision on Keystone within a matter of months, and then he said, within the year. Can you clarify the timing first on that?
And then also he had said at one point that he had acknowledged that environmentalists had exaggerated some of the environmental concerns -- and he said that to the senators and they told us afterwards -- as well as -- then he, on the other flip side, he said, well, there’s also some of the proponents of this and the corporations and proponents of this have exaggerated the number of jobs that it could produce. So can you tell us -- I'm interested in what kind of claims that he thinks environmentalists exaggerated, and the timing, too.
MR. EARNEST: This is a process that's still being run by the State Department, as it traditionally has been. It’s my understanding that there are several weeks remaining in the comment period that currently is underway as they evaluate the decision on this. So I think that is, in large part, driving a lot of the timing here. So I'd refer you to the State Department for more details about what their timeframe actually looks like.
In terms of -- won't read out the President’s comments in a private meeting with members of Congress. But as a general matter, as you’ve heard us say, there have been thousands of miles of pipelines that have been built while President Obama has been in office, and I think the point is, is that it hasn’t necessarily had a significant impact one way or the other on addressing climate change.
The truth is what we need to do is we need to take an all-of-the-above approach to our energy challenges. And so this means continued production of oil and natural gas. And production of oil is at a 20-year high, I believe. Natural gas production is at an all-time high. And our consumption is actually at recent lows. So we've made some progress in all of these issues.
But it’s going to require some significant investments like the investments that we're talking about today for us to make progress on this. And that's something the President remains committed to.
Our sense is that when there’s a decision that's ready to be announced by the State Department, they’ll go ahead and make that announcement and we'll go forward from there.
Q Are you saying, though, that whether or not Keystone gets built is less important for global warming than issues like making more investments in green energy right now?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no question about that.
Q What did you say?
MR. EARNEST: I said there’s no question about that. That if we're actually going to address the causes of climate change, we need to put in place things like the car rule that has had a significant impact on increasing fuel efficiency. As I mentioned at the top, there’s a new EPA report that indicates that the car rule and other measures have actually increased fuel efficiency by about 16 percent in this country. That has a -- the impact of that is to remove a significant amount of carbon emissions from the atmosphere.
There are other steps that we can take in terms of investments in renewable energy, in terms of investments in solar and wind energy that will greatly mitigate the causes of climate change.
Q Does the President think that environmentalists are exaggerating the climate change impacts of developing the oil sands in Canada -- is that sort of where you're going here?
MR. EARNEST: I think my point is, is that there have been pipelines that have been all across -- thousands of miles of pipelines have been built since President Obama took office inside the United States of America and it hasn’t had a measurable impact on climate change. But what has had an impact, measurable impact on climate change has been, for example, the car rule that the President has put in place that has greatly increased fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions -- that those are the kinds of things that we can do to address the challenge of climate change.
The President talked about this pretty eloquently in his inaugural address. It’s something that he restated in his State of the Union address as being a priority for his second term. And so I would encourage you to tune in and watch the President as he continues to put forward some policies that will do something serious to address the problem of climate change.
Q That's kind of the point that the environmental groups are making, is that this is different because it’s a watershed project that will really push forward development of a dirtier type of oil, and have a major impact on climate change. Is that overstated, as far as --
MR. EARNEST: I'm not intimately familiar with the arguments that they're making, so I don’t want to respond to those.
Q About the car rule, you didn’t need Congress to approve that, right?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q Now, this proposal today, you would need Congress to.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right. That’s right.
Q How does the White House plan to build that consensus when Republicans are already saying we want to see more drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf to get more revenues to be able to fund something like this?
MR. EARNEST: What I would say is that the proposal that the President is talking about today was actually an idea, a policy that was devised by retired military leaders who say that putting in place a policy like this would increase our national security. This is an idea that was also written by prominent business leaders, including some Republican business leaders, who say that this is an idea that would strengthen our economy and create jobs.
So in terms of Republicans who are wondering whether or not this is something that they should support, I would encourage them to go talk to these retired military leaders, to go talk to their fellow Republicans in the business community, that they think this would be a good thing for our economy. And I think that would form the basis of a reasonable cooperative approach to putting in place a policy like this that will strengthen our economy, that will create jobs, that will improve our national security, and reduced to some degree the impact of climate change.
Q So Lisa Murkowski, for instance, is one Senate Republican who likes this idea; she had a version of it in her plan. But she is saying that it's contingent on seeing more drilling, more access to areas. Is that something that the administration is open to? Or is that off the table totally?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the plan that we have put forward is one that’s based on the five-year plan that we currently have available in terms of those areas that have been made available under the five-year plan for drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. But this is something that we'll have to talk about with Congress, and if there is different ideas that people want to offer up, we'll certainly have a conversation with them about that. But the plan that we have put forward is based on the five-year plan that currently is in place.
Q Can I ask you about -- the U.N. has a report out about drones in Pakistan, saying both that we are -- the U.S. is violating the sovereignty of the Pakistani government, and that the civilian casualty rate is far too high. Do you have a reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that our administration is aware of Mr. Emmerson's report. But at this point, I don’t have a specific comment on either intelligence operations or any military operations.
As you know, this administration is in regular and close contact with Pakistan. We have a solid working relationship with them on a range of issues, including a close cooperative security relationship. And we're in touch with them on a regular basis on those issues, particularly the ones that relate to security.
At this point, we're going to withhold judgment on the actual report. But we're in touch with Mr. Emmerson, and if there are requests for information that are made of the administration, then we’ll carefully consider those requests.
Q But it's the U.S. position that we are not violating the sovereignty of Pakistan, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I want to withhold judgment on the actual report in terms of the claims that they're making. I just want to leave it -- reiterating for you that we do have an open, ongoing dialogue with Pakistan on a whole range of issues, and including a close, cooperative security relationship.
Q On Afghanistan, there is this dispute between Karzai and the U.S. over detainees, and recently -- you have the front page of the Washington Post today saying that Karzai is going to take over Bagram prison and take the detainees himself. How do you resolve this? What is the best way forward on this? And is this going to prevent the U.S. from remaining there with a presence -- any type of presence in the years ahead?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, Susan, from following this, this is something that we've been working through with Mr. Karzai for several months now; that our military leadership on the ground at ISAF is working closely with the Karzai government to effect the transfer of these detention facilities, including the one that you're talking about.
But in terms of where we stand in that process, I don’t have anything new to offer from here other than to say that, as we have for several months now, that this is something that we're working closely with President Karzai to complete, which is the transfer of this detention facility.
Q It just seems like Karzai was very -- when he was here a few weeks ago, he was --
MR. EARNEST: He was.
Q -- it seemed like it was an okay experience. There was none of this talking about us colluding with the Taliban. Now he's making these wild accusations. Is there any truth to the accusations he's making? And can you say anything about whether he is just off the reservation; he's not working with us? Where do things stand right now?
MR. EARNEST: I think Secretary Hagel discussed this a little bit when he was in Afghanistan over the weekend. I don’t have anything additional to say beyond what Secretary Hagel has said. But in terms of the detention facilities, we certainly are working closely with President Karzai to complete the transfer of those detention facilities. But beyond that, I don’t have anything on his comments.
Q Do you know if the President is aware of the coverage of Senator Portman's change of heart today on gay marriage? And does the White House have a response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I have not -- I haven't discussed it with the President, but I saw those reports this morning. I think what is clear is that we are witnessing a pretty significant sociological shift in this country that’s happening at a pretty rapid pace, and it's happening right before our eyes in a way that says a lot about our country -- that we have a country where we prioritize equality and fairness. And I think that is reflected in the comments of Senator Portman today. I think it's reflected in the filing before the Supreme Court that was signed by a large number of Republicans a couple of weeks ago.
And the President certainly -- well, I haven't -- pardon me -- while I haven't spoken to the President about this, he certainly welcomes anyone who is willing to step forward and say that they share the President's commitment to fairness and equality in this country.
Q Can we follow up from the briefing yesterday? Is there any response from the President on the TSA allowing knives on planes?
MR. EARNEST: There is no comment on this from the President. The TSA and Administrator Pistole are responsible for safeguarding the security of our transportation system, and they're putting in place the policies that they think are most effective in doing that. But in terms of any White House comment, I don't have any.
Q Josh, the new Israeli coalition government is being formed that puts the far-right group in sort of a strong position with regard to settlements. Is the President concerned that that represents a shift that Netanyahu is digging in further on not giving anything up on the settlement issue?
MR. EARNEST: I don't want to comment on the formation of the Israeli government because I think that's still an ongoing process. I know that they’ve made some progress even just this morning that's been announced. But it’s my understanding that that process hasn’t been completed, so I wouldn’t want to comment on it from here before it’s completed.
But in terms of the issue of settlements, the President and other senior members of this administration have been pretty clear about the fact that unilateral actions like settlement building are not constructive to the peace process. That’s also true of the unilateral actions that are taken by the Palestinians, including the action that we saw from them last fall at the United Nations. So these kinds of unilateral actions aren’t helpful.
And I do anticipate that the President, in the conversations that he’ll have with both the leaders of the Israeli government and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, will be having conversations with them about what kind of serious commitments they're willing to make to advance the peace process. And certainly, face-to-face conversations between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the only way we’re going to resolve that process.
The United States is certainly willing to continue to play a facilitating role, but it’s going to be hard to get to those face-to-face negotiations where it can make progress on peace if unilateral actions like that continue.
Q Will the President and Vice President both be out of the country on Tuesday or at any other point between these two trips?
MR. EARNEST: There certainly is a chance that that could happen. I think some of the schedule details are still being nailed down. But obviously, the President and Secretary Kerry are traveling to the Middle East. It’s the President’s first trip to the Middle East [Israel] as President. So this is, obviously, an important priority of the President’s. We’ve got important interests that need to be represented in the region. The President looks forward to the high-level discussions that will be underway there, and he’s pleased that Secretary Kerry will be participating in them as well.
Vice President Biden, as I mentioned at the beginning, is traveling to Rome for the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis.
But the fact remains that President Obama is President of the United States everywhere he goes. Vice President Biden is Vice President of the United States everywhere that he goes. Secretary Kerry, in fact, is Secretary of State of the United States everywhere that he goes. So I think what this weekend’s -- or next week’s schedule indicates is that this administration is deeply engaged all around the globe to make sure that the interests of the United States are well represented.
Q So there’s no problem if they both happen to be outside of the country at the same time?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no reason that that should in any way impact the day-to-day running of the country.
Q Do you know if there’s any precedent for that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't believe that it has occurred since President Obama and Vice President Biden have been in office, but I don't know about previous Presidents.
Q I have some nerdy questions about leasing reforms that were sort of discussed yesterday. I don't know if my colleagues want to bear with me. But do you have any more details on how those reforms would create more revenues that could be then diverted into this fund?
MR. EARNEST: My layman understanding of this is that what we anticipate is that we do anticipate that some of the reforms to the process that will cut red tape will expedite the permitting process in a way that will lead to greater production and therefore greater royalties.
And we currently collect about $5 to $6 billion dollars a year in royalties. And what we’re talking about in the context of the Energy Security Trust is about $200 million a year over the next 10 years. So we’re just talking about a portion of these royalties that would be dedicated to the Energy Security Trust, but that would guarantee a stream of revenue that could be very critical to research planning and the kinds of innovations and breakthroughs that could be critical to the development of alternative forms of energy.
Q $5 to $6 million overall royalties or just in the OCS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that.
Q And would there -- I mean, is the administration going to propose some kind of “use it or lose it” measures for leases?
MR. EARNEST: I know that’s something that we’ve talked about quite a bit in the past -- that there are large portions of areas that have been approved for exploration and drilling that are currently not being explored and drilled right now. So “use it or lose it” is a provision that the President supported previously. I don’t have any update for you in terms of new policy proposals on that.
Q And would you need congressional approval for these leasing proposals, for these leasing reports? Or is that something that you can do administratively?
MR. EARNEST: That is a good question. I’d check with the Department of Energy. My guess is, is that these are administrative changes that we’re talking about here to try to cut red tape and accelerate the permitting process in a way that wouldn’t at all affect environmental impact studies.
My guess is that’s something you could largely administratively, but I’d confirm that with the Department of Energy.
MR. EARNEST: Anybody else?
Q There was a report that Republicans are talking about reducing the number of visas for family members of immigrants who have green cards or are citizens. Is the President okay with the direction of the talks and possibly reducing the number of family visas in the future as part of a comprehensive immigration bill?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to get ahead of discussions that they’re having on Capitol Hill about this, so I don’t want to comment specifically on the proposal that they may or may be considering.
What I can tell you is I know that there’s a lot of support in the private sector for measures like this, that a lot of large businesses who are trying to recruit talent from overseas view this as an important recruitment tool; that being able to talk to a prospective employee and say, come work for my country -- come work for my company in the United States, help me grow my business -- that that sales pitch is more persuasive, the recruiting pitch is more persuasive if you can also tell that person you can bring your family with you as well.
So I know that this is something that has strong support in the business community, and whatever proposal is put forward by this bipartisan immigration reform group is something that we’ll carefully consider.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: All right, guys, thank you.
11:52 A.M. EDT