President Bush said yesterday that his national energy policy would not lower gasoline prices anytime soon, but called on Congress to pass it by August to begin weaning the nation from imported oil and transitioning to alternative sources of power and fuel.
"I wish I could simply wave a magic wand and lower gas prices tomorrow," Bush told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "But we must act now to address the fundamental problem. Our supply of energy is not growing fast enough to meet the demands of our growing economy." The average retail gasoline price hit a record $2.28 per gallon last week.
As Bush spoke, the House began debating an energy bill that includes $8.1 billion in tax breaks, mainly for big energy companies; permits oil drilling in part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and provides legal protections to producers of the gasoline additive MTBE, which is blamed for contaminating drinking water.
In a move aides described as a shot at House Republicans, Bush said, "With oil at more than $50 a barrel, by the way, energy companies do not need taxpayers'-funded incentives to explore for oil and gas."
Bush supports drilling in Alaska, which the House approved last night, as well as incentives and tax breaks aimed at promoting cleaner-burning coal, nuclear energy, liquefied natural gas, ethanol and other renewable fuels. He does not support the amount of tax breaks for oil and gas exploration proposed by House Republicans.
Bush, whose energy plan has been stalled in Congress for four years, is facing increased pressure from Democrats and a coalition of conservatives to do much more to promote alternative energy sources and more efficient vehicles this year. Some say the president should set aside, or scrap, his Social Security plan and dedicate his second term instead to dramatically restructuring the way Americans power their businesses, homes and cars. They cite the confluence of three events as reason to act immediately: the steep rise in oil and gas prices, increased U.S. dependency on the oil-rich Middle East and skyrocketing demand for oil in China and India.
Democrats are calling energy prices a "crisis" that is jeopardizing the economic and national security of the nation and are urging Bush to support more generous incentives to businesses to produce alternative fuels and to consumers to use them.
"The issue today is not that the president doesn't understand the problem, it's that he has no solutions," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who lost the presidential election to Bush in 2004. "The energy plan he continues to campaign for will make us more dependent on foreign oil, it will keep gas prices at record highs instead of making them affordable for consumers, and it will make our air and water more polluted instead of investing in a cleaner future."
At the same time, several Republican foreign policy experts, political operatives and Christian conservative leaders are quietly lobbying Bush and Congress to do some of the things Kerry and Democrats are advocating, and more. This group includes Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a Reagan administration defense official, R. James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence, and Gary L. Bauer, president of American Values, a Christian group.
They want Bush to spend as much as $12 billion over four years to subsidize efforts by companies to build flexible-fuel vehicles and electric cars, add pumps for alternative fuels to 25 percent of the nation's filling stations and build plants that produce non-petroleum fuels, among other things.
"I think presidential leadership is desirable and ought to be forthcoming," said Gaffney, president of Center for Security Policy. "This is not inconsistent with [Bush's] rhetoric, it's just inconsistent with their programmatic direction."
"Both parties sooner rather than later are going to have to take this debate to a different level," Bauer said. "This is an area where the president could leave a significant historical contribution before his term is over." A senior White House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Bush might embrace some additional incentives in coming weeks.
While conservatives, including several in Congress, want Bush to build the incentives into the current energy plan, Democrats are calling on the president to dramatically change his approach.
During yesterday's House debate, Democratic opponents of the GOP bill assailed the measure as a giveaway to corporate interests that threatens the environment, water supplies and human health. Democrats itemized tax breaks and other programs that would benefit big energy companies such as ExxonMobil Corp., which have earned record profits as a result of high oil prices.
"This is an anti-environment, anti-consumer, anti-taxpayer bill," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). "This bill lavishes taxpayer subsidies on big energy companies while weakening our environmental laws."
House Republican leaders said they expect a vote on the measure today, and both sides acknowledged the GOP has enough votes for passage. The Senate has not taken up its version of the legislation, and lawmakers have said they are trying to forge a bipartisan version of the bill.
The legislation pending in the House is similar to a measure approved by a House-Senate conference committee in 2003. That bill failed after a filibuster in the Senate.
Of the $8 billion the bill on the House floor would provide in tax breaks, about 6 percent of the benefits would go toward alternative sources of energy and energy efficiency. By contrast, Bush proposed a budget measure that would grant $6.7 billion in tax breaks, 72 percent of which would have gone toward energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy.
"Our dependence on foreign energy is like a foreign tax on the American Dream -- the tax our citizens pay every day in higher gas prices, higher cost to heat and cool their homes -- a tax on jobs," Bush said in his speech. "Worst of all, it's a tax increasing every year."
In addition to tax breaks, the legislation would provide separate benefits to energy companies, including many of the GOP's biggest donors. One provision would grant funding for research into oil and natural gas drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico -- at a cost of up to $2 billion.