Jimmy Carter Bush?

September 27, 2005

A COUPLE OF WHOPPER STORMS, some really bad poll ratings and growing panic at the gasoline pumps can prompt a president to some pretty odd behavior.

Who would've thunk we'd ever see George W. Bush, former oilman and darling of the industry, reprising Jimmy Carter's national appeal for fuel conservation?

Yet there was our conserver-in-chief at the Energy Department yesterday, talking about curbing nonessential travel and peak-hour electricity use, while encouraging carpooling and (gasp!) mass transit. Add a sweater and Georgia twang, and it was dM-ijM-` vu all over again.

"We've got a chance, once again, to assess where we are as a country when it comes to energy and to do something about it," Mr. Bush urged in a sentiment with which all can agree.

But once an oilman, always an oilman. Worried as Mr. Bush might be about the immediate effects on his party and his presidency from short-term gasoline shortages, he has not suddenly embraced the long-term conservation measures he has always resisted. Steps such as raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and building enough mass transit so it is actually an option for a significant portion of the population are not part of his prescription.

No, true to form, Mr. Bush is still mostly focused on the supply problem, which he has correctly traced to inadequate oil-refining capacity. But he, like many in Congress, attributes the lack of enthusiasm for building new refineries to environmental and other regulations that govern their construction.

Yet there is growing evidence that oil companies have not built additional refineries for decades and have even shut down some existing refineries because limiting supply drives up prices.

Refiners are making out like bandits from the high price of gasoline -- better than the suppliers, the distributors or the service station operators. It is contrary to their interest to add more refinery capacity and drive pump prices down.

Even so, House and Senate lawmakers are drafting new post-storm energy legislation that essentially blames all the current energy problems on environmental regulations and sets about removing them. Mr. Bush expressed exasperation that anyone would object.

If he wants to reclaim the mantle of presidential leadership, however, Mr. Bush should be urging not what's easy, but what's hard. Are more refineries worth the price of increased air pollution, asthma and lung disease? Are water pollution and further degradation of the overall environment reasonable tradeoffs for a return to $2 per gallon or so? Would capacity grow in any case as long as refiners have us where they want us?

What we really need, Mr. President, is help getting that oil monkey off our backs.

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