By Alister Bull
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will set an ambitious goal on Wednesday to cut oil imports by a third over 10 years, focusing on energy security amid high gasoline prices that could stall the U.S. economic recovery.
Obama will outline his strategy in a speech after spending days explaining U.S.-led military action in Libya, where fighting, accompanied by popular unrest elsewhere in the Arab world, has helped push gasoline prices toward $4 a gallon.
The White House says this is a deliberate turn toward energy security by Obama and will be followed by other events to highlight his strategy.
"He'll be laying out the goal ... that in a little over a decade from now we'll reduce the amount of oil we import from the rest of the world by about a third," a senior administration official told reporters.
Democrat Obama will lay out four areas to help reach his target of curbing U.S. dependence on foreign oil -- lifting domestic energy production, encouraging the use of more natural gas in vehicles like city buses, making cars and trucks more efficient, and encouraging biofuels.
While polls show Americans have mixed feelings about getting entangled in a third Muslim country, with the United States still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are clearly worried by high gas prices ahead of the summer driving season.
The latest measures of consumer confidence have also been dented by rising energy prices, which saps household spending and could derail the U.S. recovery if prices stay high enough for a long time, hurting Obama's 2012 re-election prospects.
"The president certainly understands the extra burden that rising gas prices put on millions of Americans already going through a tough time," the official said.
Some analysts reckon Obama may tap America's emergency oil stockpiles if U.S. oil prices hit $110 a barrel. Prices were hovering just under $105 a barrel in late Tuesday trade.
Over half of the petroleum consumed by the United States is imported, with Canada and Mexico the two largest suppliers, followed by Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
The Department of the Interior estimates millions of acres (hectares) of U.S. energy leases are not being exploited by oil companies and the White House wants that to change.
This argument also helps it push back against Obama's Republican opponents, who claim he is tying the hands of the U.S. energy sector by denying leases and restricting offshore drilling in the wake of the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"Part of our plan is to give new and better incentives to promote rapid, responsible development of these resources," the official said, but declined to go into greater detail ahead of the president's speech at 11:20 a.m. (1520 GMT).
In addition, the official said that Obama will set a goal to break ground "on at least four commercial-scale cellulosic or advanced bio refineries over the next two years," in order to help boost biofuels.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gardner; Editing by Eric Walsh)