Politicians urge aggressive work on energy alternatives

April 24, 2006
Washington politicians observed Earth Day 2006 by calling for aggressive research and development of alternatives to oil and gas. They also pledged to closely monitor gasoline prices for possible gouging as the driving season approaches.

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 24 -- Washington politicians observed Earth Day 2006 by calling for aggressive research and development of alternatives to oil and gas. They also pledged to closely monitor gasoline prices for possible gouging as the driving season approaches.

"This nation does not have to choose between a strong economy and a clean environment; we can have both at the same time," President George W. Bush said Apr. 22 at the California Fuel Partnership in West Sacramento.

Investing in hydrogen and other new technologies will keep the US strong, its fuel prices affordable, and its economy independent of parts of the world that are politically unstable, he maintained.

More immediately, however, prices are climbing because "we live in a global economy, and when the demand for crude oil goes up in China or India—fast growing economies—the price of gasoline goes up here in America," Bush said.

Noting that higher gasoline prices are a serious problem, he added, "The federal government has a responsibility to make sure there is no price-gouging, and we're watching real careful to make sure that people are treated fairly."

Bush's remarks came as the Washington Post reported that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) plan to ask the president to order a Federal Trade Commission investigation of oil industry consolidation and its possible impact on product prices. A spokesman for Hastert confirmed for OGJ that such a letter was being drafted.

'A tough summer'
Bush said: "We're going to have a tough summer because people are beginning to drive now during tight supply. The Energy Department predicts gas prices are going to go up. Part of the reason, of course, is the escalating price of crude oil. Another reason why is we haven't had any refinery capacity in the United States in a long period of time."

Bush added, "When you don't have refining capacity and demand goes up, you're going to see a price increase. And so this country has got to be wise about how we permit refineries and encourage additional refining capacity."

Bush also acknowledged that replacing methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) with ethanol as an additive is pushing gasoline prices higher but said that this was necessary because MTBE "is a product that wouldn't biodegrade. . .It's a terrible pollutant."

Bush declared, "All these factors remind us that we have to do something about our dependence on oil. That's what the lessons at the pump say today."

Democrats also called for accelerated research into and development of alternatives. "Sixty percent of the oil we use is from foreign countries, so more hybrid vehicles and alternative fuels such as ethanol made from cost-effective crops would make a huge difference—and, relatively quickly," said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida in the Democrats' response to Bush's weekly radio address.

While Bush has proposed a modest 2 mpg increase for light truck fuel mileage requirements, the US has the technology to raise the mileage standard for all passenger vehicles to at least 40 mpg, according to Nelson.

"We should produce synthetic fuel from coal, with attention to global warming concerns. We should set a course of developing an engine that is powered by a new source of energy such as hydrogen, which will also be less polluting," he said.

Disruption potential
He warned that with world oil markets so tight, with increasing demand from China and India, the slightest disruption in supplies—whether from the Strait of Hormuz being blocked, a hostile leader of a producing nation refusing cutting off sales to the US, or "a megahurricane that goes right up Galveston Bay and shuts down the refineries in Houston"—could create economic havoc.

"Whatever the cause, the crisis is coming. And so America must act now, before soaring prices and a dependence on foreign oil puts a chokehold on our economy and military," Nelson said.

In an Earth Day message distributed by her fund-raising organization, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) suggested establishing a national energy research institute to develop alternatives quickly.

"Let oil companies be part of the solution by investing some of their historic profits, due partly to subsidies, into a strategic energy fund to develop alternative energy forms," she said in an e-mail distributed through Friends of Hillary.

Clinton said such a fund would spur development and deployment of new energy technologies. "We could increase consumer tax breaks to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, extend incentives to produce electricity from renewable sources, and make biofuels more widely available," she said.

More aggressive energy research "and a portfolio of cutting edge technologies" could create new forms of marketable energy and conservation, Clinton said.

"If we take this seriously right now, we can see results in the near future because so much of the technology—like wind farms, solar energy cells, ethanol, and biodiesel—already is on the brink of being commercially feasible," she said.

Contact Nick Snow at [email protected].