The Bush administration yesterday launched a campaign to urge Americans to conserve energy in homes and businesses as a way to combat high costs this winter.
Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said at a news conference that consumers could take basic steps to reduce energy consumption and lower costs, including driving 55 miles per hour instead of 65, insulating their houses and keeping their thermostats set at a lower temperature when they are away this winter.
The secretary's comments follow a sharp run-up in energy prices after hurricanes Katrina and Rita crippled production around the Gulf of Mexico and tightened supplies of gasoline and the widely used home heating fuels: natural gas and heating oil. Bodman's comments expand on recent statements by President Bush, who has urged conservation since the hurricanes.
"The need to use energy more wisely is particularly acute this year because of the higher prices we expect to see," Bodman said yesterday. He added: "We have had a severe disruption in the last few weeks in the energy infrastructure of this country."
The conservation effort marks a turn for an administration that has focused more heavily on measures to boost supplies of energy. Vice President Dick Cheney said in 2001, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it cannot be the basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
In a joint news conference with the nonprofit advocacy group Alliance to Save Energy, Bodman did not call for any mandatory conservation measures. Instead, he said he and his deputies would give talks around the country advocating voluntary steps that consumers can take to conserve. The department also will offer to send specialists to 200 businesses to suggest ways they can save energy.
The energy secretary said public service announcements calling for conservation would be distributed to more than 4,000 radio stations around the country. And the department urged consumers to go to www.energysavers.gov for tips about reducing energy consumption.
Environmentalists and conservation advocates yesterday said they were pleased the administration is calling for conservation but said the statements were at odds with its record. They said the energy bill signed by Bush in August was a giveaway to the energy industry and contained too few incentives for conservation.
"The fact that we haven't gotten a sound energy policy is the reason why they've gotten this epiphany," said Brendan Bell, a Washington-based energy advocate for the environmental group Sierra Club. "They're asking Americans to conserve, but they're not asking the same from the auto industry and the oil industry."
Tyson Slocum, research director for the energy project at Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, said the administration's calls for conservation "ring pretty hollow."
"It's one thing to talk about it," Slocum said. "It's another thing to provide the tools to consumers to make those choices."
Slocum said the administration should have significantly increased mileage requirements for cars and trucks, increased funding for alternative fuels, and rejected tax breaks for big energy producers.
Craig Stevens, an Energy Department spokesman, rejected the criticism and said conservation has long been part of Bush's agenda. Stevens cited provisions of the energy bill that give tax breaks for hybrid vehicles and energy-efficient appliances.
Analysts said reducing consumer demand by several percentage points for various forms of energy could lower prices significantly. Natural gas prices are hovering near record highs, and gasoline prices nationally are nearing $3 for a gallon of regular. In the Washington area, the price for a gallon of regular averaged $3.09, according to a AAA-sponsored survey yesterday.
The average family will pay about $4,494 in energy costs this year, up about 19 percent from last year, according to estimates by the consulting firm Global Insight Inc. in Lexington, Mass. That includes gasoline and all other forms of energy use. Prices were climbing well before the hurricanes caused a further spike.
The Energy Department has not kept up with reviews of efficiency standards for residential and commercial appliances that could result in changes that decrease energy consumption. For years, the Energy Department has missed legally mandated deadlines to review a number of efficiency standards and determine whether to strengthen them. The administration is continuing to push for expanding domestic energy supplies by drilling for oil and natural gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Congress included drilling in a budget measure, and final votes are expected soon.