Under pressure from Congress to confront impending oil shortages with concrete action, the Bush administration yesterday called for prompt passage of amendments to the Clean Air Act but ruled out legislation that would force oil conservation or reestablish federal control over oil markets.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly said passage of acid rain and clean fuels provisions of clean air legislation now in a House-Senate conference would not only enhance air quality but also save 800,000 barrels a day of oil by 2005, approximately equaling U.S. imports from Iraq and Kuwait prior to the Persian Gulf crisis.
"We have yet an added reason to accelerate action on clean air and make sure it is on the president's desk by the time Congress goes home," said Reilly, attempting to boost momentum of the slow-moving conference.
While Reilly met with reporters to unveil the energy spinoffs of clean air proposals, other senior administration officials restated their opposition to a measure that would force automakers to increase the average mileage of their fleets to 40 miles a gallon by 2005, a bill that supporters say would reduce U.S. oil consumption by 2.8 million barrels a day, or 16 percent.
Introduced by Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.) as a clean air measure but gaining momentum as a fuel saver, the bill is expected to come to a vote in the Senate in the next week. But Energy Secretary James D. Watkins told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday that he and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner would recommend that President Bush veto it as economically unwise and technically unfeasible.
Watkins and Skinner flew to Boston yesterday to kick off a public relations campaign aimed at persuading Americans to save energy. Watkins told the Senate panel measures such as compliance with speed limits and more use of car pools could save 530,000 barrels of oil a day.
Some senators complained that the administration is sending the wrong signals by endorsing legislation that would open environmentally sensitive areas of Alaska to oil drilling and provide tax incentives to increase domestic oil production while supporting no legislation that would force oil use down. But Energy Deputy Secretary W. Henson Moore said there is "nothing we can find, no legislation we can think of, that would affect the situation over the next 90 to 180 days," when oil shortfalls caused by the loss of Iraqi and Kuwaiti supplies are expected to be felt.
Crude oil stocks remain "well above levels at the same time last year," Watkins said. The administration will consider releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve if necessary, Watkins said, but only in coordination with allies through the International Energy Agency.
Much of the projected oil savings would come from acid rain provisions designed to halve the amount of sulfur dioxide released by power plants. Wafting hundreds of miles, the pollutant falls in rain and kills wildlife.
Both bills call for tough emissions limits on every utility, discouraging use of high-sulfur fuel. According to the EPA analysis, plants in the Northeast and Southeast are expected to replace 300,000 barrels a day of high-sulfur oil with natural gas. The number could grow to 500,000 barrels a day after the a nationwide cap on sulfur dioxide forces utilities to further cut back their emissions.
Clean-fuel provisions, which seek to replace gasoline with less-polluting blends in the nation's dirtiest cities starting in 1992, would eventually reduce gasoline demand by 500,000 barrels per day, according to the EPA analysis. New, cleaner fuels and blends derived from grain or natural gas would replace smog-forming gasoline in the nine smoggiest cities. But other cities would be able to "opt in" under the Senate bill, increasing oil savings.
"When we embarked on the course of clean air, we were concerned with serious pollution," said Reilly. "We now have even more reasons to move with urgency. The advantages in terms of oil conservation from air-pollution controls are very considerable. You make a real contribution to lowering dependency on oil imports."
Environmentalists pushing for clean air legislation applauded Reilly's plea for prompt action. But they questioned how an administration citing energy savings from air pollution initiatives can strenuously oppose efforts to increase gas mileage in cars.