YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — White House hopeful Mitt Romney distilled his call to boost US energy production into a pithy truism, telling voters that while wind energy was admirable, "you can't drive a car with a windmill on it."
The lighthearted moment on Monday resonated with Romney supporters in northeastern Ohio, where he and other Republican candidates say efforts to turn the region into a big natural gas producer have been stymied by President Barack Obama's administration.
US energy needs and costs have become a hot political issue in recent weeks, with fuel prices skyrocketing just as the race to choose a Republican nominee to take on Obama in November reaches fever pitch.
In a blistering opinion piece in an Ohio newspaper on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries, Romney accused Obama of retreating into an "imaginary world" of renewable energy instead of exploiting oil and gas sources to become the globe's leading energy superpower.
"America is an energy-rich nation, and it is time we stopped living like an energy-poor one," he wrote in the Columbus Dispatch.
"As president, I will unleash American innovation and productivity to make full use of our natural resources," he said, adding that he would "pursue dramatic regulatory reform to accelerate the exploration and development of oil and gas, to facilitate construction of vital infrastructure and to preserve and expand crucial electricity capacity."
In other words, he told supporters at a Youngstown equipment manufacturing plant, "I'm going to make sure we take advantage of our oil, our coal, our natural gas, our nuclear power as well as our renewables.
"We're going to have reliable American energy security and independence," he said, stressing that oil and gas will lead the way.
"Solar and wind is fine except it's very expensive and you can't drive a car with a windmill on it," Romney quipped.
Obama raised Republican hackles earlier this month when he told an audience in New Hampshire that politicians were using high gas prices to score political points, and insisted that "there are no quick fixes or silver bullets" to lower them.
But he did say Washington was keen to exploit domestic production, saying: "We've got to have an all-of-the-above strategy that develops every single source of American energy -- not just oil and gas, but also wind and solar and biofuels," Obama said.
Youngstown has been drawn into a simmering debate over energy, particularly hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a process by which high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals are used to blast through rock to release oil and gas trapped inside.
Advances in horizontal drilling have helped create a boom in the industry, and the US Energy Information Administration has said natural gas reserves could supply US needs for 110 years.
Romney insisted Monday that the Obama White House has launched an "attack on fracking technology," slowed the issue of new permits and restricted drilling on federal lands.
Estimates of US shale gas resources are about 862 trillion cubic feet, a figure which doubled from 2010 to 2011. Shale contributes some 23 percent of the US natural gas supply, expecting to reach 46 percent by 2035 according to a Texas study.
One of the biggest US sources is believed to be the Utica Shale, a huge expanse of underground rock stretching from New York south through Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and other states.
"If you're in the Mahoning Valley (in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania) and you want to bring back the jobs, it's about fracking," Senator Rob Portman of Ohio told reporters at Romney's Youngstown event.
"That's where the future is."
Reports have emerged suggesting the process has led to groundwater contamination, although some scientists have stated there is no evidence that fracking leads to such problems.
Youngstown found itself in the spotlight after a series of 11 minor earthquakes occurred close to a wastewater well drilled by Youngstown's D&L Energy. Authorities ordered the well shut down while investigations are conducted.
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