WASHINGTON -- President Bush urged Americans yesterday to drive less and embrace conservation in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and he said he would work with Congress to enact new incentives for energy production and refinery construction.
The president said he was directing federal agencies to take steps to reduce energy consumption and that he would release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as needed to ease the shortages and price spikes caused by the two hurricanes.
In Congress, Republican leaders announced plans to introduce legislation to give tax breaks to energy companies and provide other incentives left out of the big energy bill Bush signed in August.
The developments underscored the extent to which Katrina and Rita have altered the legislative agendas of the White House and Congress, and the breadth of their effect on a domestic petroleum market that has become increasingly sensitive to supply disruptions.
In remarks reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter's 1977 appeal to Americans to turn down their thermostats, Bush said everyone has a role to play in responding to the back-to-back storms that have hampered offshore oil production, refinery operations and fuel distribution in the Gulf Coast region.
"We can all pitch in ... by being better conservers of energy," Bush said after a briefing at the Energy Department. "I mean, people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive ... on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful."
The president said he was ordering executive branch agencies to do the same. Federal employees were being told to curtail nonessential travel, increase use of car pools and mass transit, and reduce electricity use during peak hours, he said, "as a way for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation."
Asked whether Bush - who is to begin today his seventh trip to the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina struck in late August - would curtail his travel to the area, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that "it's important for the president of the United States to travel to the region and get firsthand accounts of the operations and to provide comfort and support to those who have been affected. That's an important responsibility of the president of the United States."
On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders said they were moving swiftly to write legislation aimed at spurring refinery construction and expansion. Some expressed interest in starting a push to relax a decades-old moratorium on offshore oil drilling in most U.S. coastal waters.
Environmental groups said they were gearing up for a possible effort to roll back environmental rules. Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said Republican leaders were "racing faster than a hurricane to smash through alleged environmental barriers before anyone realizes what they are up to."
Congressional leaders said they had not decided whether they would draft another comprehensive energy bill or try to attach provisions aimed at building more refineries to a package of hurricane relief measures.
Even before Katrina hit, knocking out a good chunk of the nation's oil refineries and driving up pump prices, lawmakers were getting an earful from constituents about high fuel costs. But it appeared that the hurricanes might have whipped up a favorable political climate for industry-backed initiatives that did not make it into the big energy bill approved this year.
Among measures expected to gain support were new tax breaks for refiners. Any energy legislation was also expected to include White House proposals to make former military bases available as sites for new refineries and to streamline the permit process for new or expanded refineries, including establishing deadlines for federal approval.
Warren Vieth and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.