Bush could unveil energy initiatives


Published: Monday, January 22, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 11:21 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A year after warning America of its addiction to oil, President Bush is expected to renew concerns about energy security in his State of the Union address. But will the rhetoric be followed by action? Up to now, the record has been mixed.

Aides hint of a major pronouncement on energy in the speech before Congress and the nation Tuesday night. Yet the president is expected to take a predictable path, urging expanded use of ethanol in gasoline, more research into cleaner burning coal and on gas-electric "hybrid" cars, and greater nuclear energy.

He may tweak his voluntary program on climate change. Aides, however, say the president remains opposed to mandatory cuts in carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases as has been proposed in Congress.

A year ago, Bush declared "America is addicted to oil" and he set a goal of replacing three-fourths of today's oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. He pledged to press for alternatives to oil and for more efficient use of energy.

He has had some success in getting more domestic production.

The Bush administration has opened new federal lands for oil and gas drilling. Last month, Congress approved opening a large new area in the Gulf of Mexico to drilling. This month, Bush lifted a longtime ban on oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay. But when it comes to weaning the country away from oil, the president's critics say his rhetoric has not been matched by action.

"President Bush actually cut funding for the key energy-saving technologies," says Joseph Romm, former head of renewable fuels and efficiency programs at the Energy Department during the Clinton administration.

The department's requests for renewable fuel and conservation programs have stayed flat at about $1.18 billion annually over the past six years — really a decline if inflation is considered, energy efficiency advocates say.

"Since 2002, the energy efficiency programs at the Energy Department have dropped by a third in real dollars," says Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Safe Energy, a private advocacy group.

When one program is increased, others have suffered, these critics maintain.

They acknowledge spending increases for research into solar and wind energy, but contend that came at the expense of two other renewable energy programs that were eliminated: research into geothermal energy deep within the earth and efforts to make hydroelectric dams more fish friendly.

Congress has not been all that helpful, either.

The energy law passed in 2005 authorized $3.8 billion worth of renewable energy and conservation programs. But a vast majority of those programs are without funds, neither requested by the administration nor approved by Congress.

Callahan points to a $450 million consumer education and outreach campaign on energy efficiency in that law, but says "not one penny has been appropriated" nor has the money been sought by the administration.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman says the administration over the years has spent nearly $12 billion in developing new energy technologies. He cited the president's $2.1 billion "advanced energy initiative" in the State of the Union a year ago.

But most of that program goes for nuclear research and clean coal technology that generally has little impact on the country's dependence on oil, 70 percent of which is used in transportation.

For that, Bush told a renewable fuels conference last year in St. Louis, "we need to change how we power our automobiles. ... I like the idea of promoting a fuel that relies upon our farmers."

Bush has supported lawmakers' push to use more corn-based ethanol as a gasoline blend and he is expected to call for a sharp escalation of ethanol use in his speech.

It is a political sure bet as ethanol has widespread bipartisan support.

Among the first bills introduced in the new Democratic-run Senate calls for using 60 billion gallons of ethanol, 10 times current production capacity, by 2030.

Two 2008 presidential hopefuls, Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Joe Biden of Delaware, are its leading co-sponsors.

Ethanol is "riding a big wave" this year, says Mark McMinimy, a policy analyst at the Stanford Group. "The renewable fuels-ethanol juggernaut enjoys one of the most prized commodities in Washington — broad-based support, bipartisan political momentum."

But even there, the administration has been criticized for not living up to the rhetoric.

In last year's State of the Union speech, Bush announced a goal to make a "new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years." His administration followed within days with a budget calling for only a modest increase — about $29 million — for research into cellulosic ethanol development.

Last week, the House passed legislation that would funnel $14 billion in money collected from oil companies into a renewable fuel fund. Ethanol lobbyist Bob Dinneen of the Renewable Fuels Association welcomed the action and urged that the fund finance loan guarantees — approved by Congress in 2005, but not funded — for cellulosic ethanol plants.

Yet the White House strongly opposed the House-passed bill in part because it said additional taxes on the oil companies should not be used to pay for such new programs.

A report last week by the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded "it is unlikely" that the government's current research and development programs will provide the alternative energy sources needed to "reverse our growing dependence on imported oil."

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