Bush Visit Energizes Va. Town

At Virginia Biodiesel Refineries in West Point, Va., President Bush examines a handkerchief for any residue from a diesel-soybean oil fuel mix. At left is Douglas Oberhelman of Caterpillar.
At Virginia Biodiesel Refineries in West Point, Va., President Bush examines a handkerchief for any residue from a diesel-soybean oil fuel mix. At left is Douglas Oberhelman of Caterpillar. (By Mark Gormus -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

WEST POINT, Va., May 16 -- When high school senior Sarah Elizabeth Williams started the first Manchester High School Teenage Republicans two years ago, she never guessed it would lead to her spending a muddy, buggy morning sitting outside a remote biodiesel refinery.

It did, and she couldn't have been more excited.

"I said, 'Please, please, please let me come,' " Williams, 18, recalled as she waited for President Bush to give a speech to about 450 GOP activists and supporters in which he urged more support for alternative fuels to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Williams, who plans to attend Randolph-Macon College next year, joined invited guests from across central Virginia in welcoming Bush to this tiny community west of Williamsburg.

"[Bush] goes to Chicago; it's no big deal. He goes to New York; it's no big deal," said Libby Downey, 53, a real estate agent from Gloucester who brought her two 5-year-old grandsons to the speech. "For the people around here, we're a small community. For the president to come here, that really is a big deal."

At the start of a week in which the U.S. Senate will begin considering a comprehensive energy bill, Bush toured a small company that produces a clean-burning alternative fuel by mixing diesel with a specially-refined soybean oil.

Owners of Virginia Biodiesel Refineries demonstrated their technology by holding a white handkerchief up to the exhaust of a tractor-trailer powered by the mixture. It "remained white," Bush later said. The president urged the Senate to join the House of Representatives in passing a bill that promotes development of biodiesel and ethanol-based fuels.

"Our dependence on foreign oil is like a foreign tax on the American Dream, and that tax is growing every year," Bush told the friendly crowd. "It's time for the United States Senate to act."

Bush used the morning speech to prod senators who have resisted provisions of the bill that open parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. He said the bill would authorize drilling on 2,000 of its 19 million acres.

"Developing this tiny area could yield up to about a million barrels of oil a day," Bush said. "And thanks to technology, we can reach that oil with almost no impact on land or wildlife."

The president's critics called his message overly optimistic. In a statement, the executive director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, said Bush's speech dredged up "19th-century solutions." He said the president is pushing for an energy policy "that fails to lower gas prices, fails to cut our dependence on oil, and puts our public lands and communities at risk."

"No photo op can hide the fact that the Bush energy plan gives 90 percent of its tax breaks to Big Oil and gas and other fossil fuels," Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said.

Bush's visit drew a virtual who's who of politics. Five members of congress attended, as did more than a dozen Virginia state senators and delegates. Bush was introduced by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). After the speech, Allen emphasized the importance of an energy bill. He also quipped that he saves a penny a gallon on gas by using a preferred-customer card at the Flying J truck stop.

West Point merchants hung banners welcoming Bush to their town, even though he never made it beyond its industrial outskirts. One shop advertised free oil changes in honor of Bush's visit.

In his speech, Bush noted that he was the first sitting president to visit the West Point area.

"They tell me George Washington came before he was president," Bush said. "I thought it was time for another George W. to stop by."

Phyllis Karhatsu and Sharon Clark both came from Richmond to see the president after getting tickets through the Republican women's club and the Chesterfield GOP committee.

"He's down to earth," Karhatsu said. "He's the type of person you can see as a father or a brother. He's a great leader."

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