President Bush prides himself on being a “plain-spoken fella,” but a few straightforward words he uttered earlier this year still have a lot of people perplexed about his energy policy.
“America is addicted to oil,” Bush declared during his State of the Union address on Jan. 31.
Though an obvious observation to many people, it was an unexpected statement coming from a former Texas oilman who had been accused of letting the industry write energy policy for him early in his administration and attacked for going to war at least in part to protect access to Middle Eastern crude.
Bush has since been on an energy jag, making stops in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado and California to tout alternative fuels for vehicles and homes and dispatching his Cabinet members elsewhere to do the same.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology is considered one of the most promising ways to eventually wean drivers off gasoline without polluting the environment, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged to do his part with a “hydrogen highway” to make refueling convenient. But both the technology and the infrastructure are considered many years away from viability and widespread use.
That’s been one of the most common criticisms of Bush’s energy policy, that it invests in solutions years off and does little to address more immediate gains.
“For too long, we’ve looked out decades and said, ‘This is what it should be eventually,’ and we have sacrificed the short term,” said Bradley Berman, editor of www.hybridcars.com.
To power buildings, Bush has pushed for breakthroughs in clean coal, solar and wind energy, and nuclear advancements.
At the heart of his policy on vehicle transportation _ which makes up 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption _ is research on better batteries, ethanol production that doesn’t rely solely on corn, and hydrogen fuel cells. He’s also offered consumers tax incentives to buy green cars, and given fuel providers breaks to add clean fuel pumps to their stations.
His administration tightened corporate average fuel economy standards for light trucks earlier this year, including gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles for the first time. But he let off the hook one of America’s most profitable markets _ pickup trucks. And the remaining fuel savings were criticized by environmentalists and others as paltry compared to what might have been technologically feasible.
“He left in the loopholes,” said Walter McManus, director of the Automotive Analysis Division of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
McManus said he thinks Bush should be doing more to push for efficient fuel today rather than just investing in future technologies.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said that one of the centerpieces of Bush’s second administration is science and technology, “which we believe are the keys to cracking the code on reducing dependency on oil as a fuel for running our economy.”
“That’s a very important thing to explain,” Bodman said in a phone interview.
He said Bush hoped to avoid dictating to the auto industry how many alternative fuel vehicles it should build or to the fuel or agriculture sectors how much ethanol should be made available for energy.
“I hope we can avoid mandates,” Bodman said, though he volunteered that such a scenario was conceivable. “This president has always been of the view that we try to stimulate the economy. We try not to issue mandates on industry.”
Bodman said Bush was just speaking the truth when he announced the nation’s addiction to “one raw material.”
The comment caught a lot of people by surprise.
Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he was disappointed by Bush’s remark and considered the statement “over-the-top rhetoric.”
“I don’t know why the president would try to de-legitimize or demonize energy use,” said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington.
Though motorists are getting stung every time they fill up their tanks, Berman said, they’re not ready to “completely inconvenience themselves” to buy an energy-efficient vehicle, either.
For example, owners of cars fueled with E85, a fuel combination that contains 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petroleum, are finding that only about 1 percent of the nation’s 179,000 service stations carry the fuel.
“That’s why hybrids have proven to be the strongest player in the marketplace,” Berman said. “You still go to the local gas station. It doesn’t cause any kind of confusion about what you need to do as a driver, or what it’s going to do to your engine.”
Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming and energy program, said he thinks the public is more interested in doing its part than it’s given credit for.
“When they finally were offered clean hybrids, they’ve been snapping them up like hotcakes,” Becker said. “Most of the hybrids, you have to stand in line for.
Gary Simon, chairman of CleanStart, said he thinks Bush has learned the same thing as many predecessors in the White House.
“I think we’ve seen a real evolution in our energy policy as a country, but almost without fail, every president has come to the same conclusion, that the cheapest energy we can find is the energy we don’t have to use,” Simon said. “Conservation and energy efficiency always becomes an important part of energy policy.”