No `quick fix' for gasoline price planned

Despite recent rise, White House rejects emergency action

Tax cut at pump doubtful

Administration intent on boosting supplies, shuns conservation

May 08, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With gasoline prices soaring nationwide, the White House all but ruled out yesterday any short-term intervention by President Bush to try to give motorists relief during the summer vacation season.

"The president is very concerned about the rise of the price of gasoline," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman. But, he added, the president "has never sought a quick fix because quick fixes don't work."

The administration is expected to announce its new comprehensive energy policy later next week, and yesterday's remarks from the White House hinted at one of its core messages: that emergency actions are not always appropriate, even if prices are rising fast and consumers are howling.

The president has taken an equally hands-off approach to the electricity crisis and rolling blackouts in California, for which he has opposed the imposition of price controls.

Over the past two weeks, average U.S. gasoline prices rose by 8.58 cents and reached an all-time high, unadjusted for inflation, of $1.76 a gallon, according to the Lundberg Survey of 8,000 service stations across the country. (Adjusted for inflation, the average national price was still a dollar less than during the price shocks of 1981.)

In the Midwest, according to the Energy Department, the average price has broken $1.80, and there and in other parts of the country, some consumers are paying more than $2 a gallon.

Some energy analysts suggest that gasoline prices may have peaked and that they will stabilize or decline into the summer.

The Energy Department has predicted that the national average is likely to hover between $1.50 and $1.75 a gallon all summer.

Other experts warn that with U.S. refineries near capacity, any incident that forces a scale-back in production could result in sudden price jumps.

Fuel tax cut unlikely

Still, Fleischer said yesterday that the president would probably oppose efforts to reduce or suspend the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, which is used typically to fund highway and road-building projects. Some of Bush's closest Republican allies - including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Spencer Abraham, the energy secretary and a former Michigan senator - supported suspending the federal tax last summer as gasoline prices surged.

A spokesman for Abraham, Joe Davis, declined to say yesterday whether the energy secretary still believed in suspending the gasoline tax to control prices. But Davis said, "Whatever the position of the administration is, the secretary of energy will support it."

Some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, supported a more modest option last year of temporarily reducing the federal gasoline tax by 4 or 5 cents, a notion the White House did not explicitly rule out yesterday.

"The president has not joined that chorus before," Fleischer said of adjusting the gasoline tax. "I would not rule it out, but that is not something the president is focused on."

As it has previewed its energy policy in recent weeks, the administration has also appeared cool to the idea of prodding Americans to conserve energy, whether it be fuel for their vehicles or electricity for their homes and businesses.

White House officials have said they fear that forced conservation would impinge too much on American lifestyles and serve only as a short-term step that would make only a little dent in the energy problem.

Vice President Dick Cheney, in outlining the soon-to-be-released energy policy in a speech last week in Toronto, criticized the "austerity" of former President Jimmy Carter, who dealt with gasoline shortages in the 1970s by imploring Americans to conserve as much energy as possible.

"Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," Cheney said, adding that it was wrong to believe that Americans "could simply conserve or ration our way out of the situation we're in."

The administration has said the best solution to the nation's energy troubles is to boost domestic supplies of oil and coal, and to renew a focus on nuclear power to produce electricity.

White House officials have pointed to the rolling blackouts in California as an example of the need for expanding domestic energy supplies, though many energy experts maintain that new supplies could not be found in time to ease the crisis on the West Coast.

In recent days, the White House has been on the defensive as some leading scientists have suggested that broad-based conservation could significantly save energy. In response, Bush's aides have begun insisting that its new energy policy, while focusing on boosting supplies, would include elements of conservation.

The president repeated that promise yesterday. "We'll have a strong conservation statement," he said tersely without elaborating.

`An American way of life'

But when asked yesterday whether the president believed in asking Americans to adjust their lifestyles to consume less energy, Fleischer said: "That's a big no."

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