WASHINGTON -- President Bush ordered federal agencies yesterday to start drafting regulations to cut U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent in the next 10 years and to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.
But the president's critics were quick to say the call lacked any real heft and would result in neither lower gas prices nor reduced pollution for years, if then.
"America has a clear national interest in reducing our dependence on oil," Bush said in a Rose Garden appearance. "When it comes to energy and the environment, the American people expect common sense, and they expect action."
The president directed Cabinet officers to fashion new regulations by this fall, though some of those officials questioned whether their review would result in new fleet mileage standards for American auto manufacturers.
Bush conceded that action will take time. "This is a complicated legal and technical matter," he said, "and it's going to take time to fully resolve."
Some in Congress, including an influential member of Bush's party, called this inadequate. One Democrat called it a "stall tactic" after a recent Supreme Court ruling that the Bush administration must act on greenhouse gas emissions.
And the president's directive, experts say, won't have any short-term bearing on the rising price of gasoline, which averages $3.05 per gallon for regular gas in the latest U.S. Department of Energy survey, up from just above $2 per gallon on Election Day 2004. The average national price of a gallon of gas hit a record $3.073 yesterday, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service.
Since Bush's State of the Union address in January 2006, when he declared that "America is addicted to oil," he has set goals for lowering energy consumption. In that address, Bush said the country should replace more than 75 percent of its oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.
In this year's State of the Union address, he set a goal of cutting U.S. gas consumption by 20 percent over 10 years - a "20-in-10" plan that he is ordering federal agencies to begin implementing with new regulations.
The president now has a stronger hand in the matter, with a recent Supreme Court ruling that the federal government has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
"The Bush administration is taking the first regulatory step to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from cars," said Steve Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. "We have not reached any conclusion about what the final regulation will look like."
Yet even as the president's executive order directs the EPA and the Departments of Transportation, Energy and Agriculture to develop regulations that will put his plan into effect, the administrators of these agencies cannot say what, if any, specific new automobile fleet standards for fuel economy might emerge.
"The agencies are putting the building blocks in place," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, backing a farm bill proposing $1.6 billion in funding for renewable energy, with a focus on cellulosic ethanol.
Experts say the availability of alternative sources of energy such as ethanol or bio-diesel fuel is unlikely to achieve the sort of savings in gas that Bush is seeking within 10 years. And short of making a dramatic increase in domestic oil production - including the controversial tapping of Alaskan or Gulf Coast oil reserves now off-limits to drilling - the U.S. will remain dependent on foreign oil, experts say.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, delivered a critical assessment of the president's leadership on energy in a speech yesterday. "The president's energy activities are barely registering in the American consciousness," Lugar told the Deloitte Energy Conference.
"In large part, this is because there is no energy campaign upon which he has visibly and repeatedly staked his reputation and legacy," Lugar said. "With the possible exception of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, there is nothing in the Bush domestic energy program that a well-informed American would identify with this administration."
What's needed, the influential farm-state senator said, is a national policy of making "competitively priced bio-fuels available to every motorist." This would include ensuring that virtually every new car sold is capable of running on an 85 percent ethanol fuel mix and that at least a quarter of all filling stations have "E-85" pumps.
The government should also "radically" increase the standards for fuel efficiency of the nation's auto fleets, Lugar said.
Nonetheless, administration officials don't guarantee that this would lead to new regulations for automobile fleet fuel efficiency, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy.
Johnson, the EPA chief, says this is only one of the clear options.
Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.