WASHINGTON – With no end in sight to rising gas prices, President Bush (search) on Wednesday renewed his push for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil in an energy plan proposal that has been stuck in Congress since early in his first term.
Speaking at the Battelle Memorial Institute (search), a research lab in Ohio that has received millions in federal grants, Bush spoke about conservation, efficiency, diversifying the energy supply and modernizing the electrical grid. He urged Congress to get moving on two stalled initiatives: his energy plan and his "Clear Skies" (search) power plant proposal.
But the president's call on Congress to pass his "Clear Skies" initiative came too late. Earlier in the day, a Senate panel shot down on a 9-9 vote the president's plan to place pollution limits on power plants, but allow operators to trade emission credits. Environmentalists argued the plan would actually delay badly needed cleanups.
"Clear Skies would allow almost every state in this country to fulfill stricter environmental standards while also producing coal," Bush said.
"Soon the EPA will finalize two rules similar to the Clear Skies initiative," he said, describing one regulation to decrease mercury levels and another to reduce the amount of pollution that flies in the air from one state to another.
"But they are not a substitute for effective legislation ... Congress needs to get a good Clear Skies bill to my desk now," Bush said.
On the flight to Ohio, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president will continue to work on the rule-making process and work with Congress to get it passed.
"There are still a number of people on the committee firmly committed to working to get it passed. We applaud the efforts of Chairman [James] Inhofe and Senator [George] Voinovich. This is an important piece of legislation."
Among his priorities, Bush said he wants to investigate "clean coal" (search) technology. The president's budget includes $286 million for research into ways to reduce the sulfur content of coal, which contributes to acid rain (search).
"Our nation's blessed with enough coal to last another 250 years. We've got a lot of it," Bush said, explaining that 90 percent of electricity comes from coal-burning plants.
"Think about it, there's a process that converts [coal] into gas," he said, adding that other efforts being researched include turning sulfur emissions into fertilizer and producing zero-emission coal burning plants.
"Some said the possibility of coal burning cleanly was like the Red Sox winning the World Series," Bush said, praising research that suggests clean coal technology is not impossible.
During his institute tour, Bush saw a demonstration of clean coal production technology as well as the electrical energy grid, mock fuel cell technology in new Bradley fighting vehicles and a next-generation nuclear power plant. He also viewed a vial of nano-materials, pipeline safety equipment and a presentation on affordable housing and energy.
As Bush toured the institute, back on Capitol Hill, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., held a press conference to urge the president to authorize dipping into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (search), a 682.5 million stockpile of oil that is set aside in case of emergencies.
Schumer said dipping into the SPR would enable the United States to fight back against OPEC (search), the coalition of oil-exporting nations that continues to cut back production to increase prices. Analysts have predicted that international oil prices could rise to $80 per barrel by summer.
"We only have one weapon, one ace in the hole — the Strategic Petroleum Reserve," Schumer said. "I don't think we have much choice ... let us act before the economy goes downhill."
McClellan reiterated the sentiment that the petroleum reserve should not be touched except in the case of a terrorist attack or other disaster. It should not be used to manipulate gas prices or for political purposes, he said.
But with Americans using roughly 17 million barrels of oil a day, and nearly 60 percent of that being imported, lawmakers and administration officials are looking for alternatives.
Bush said the second prong of his energy plan is to open up drilling on U.S. land. He stressed what he called benefits to opening up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) in Alaska. Bush said cracking into the oil field would increase domestic supply without doing negligible damage to the sanctuary.
"We could recover more than 10 billion barrels of oil from a small corner of ANWR ... We can now reach all of ANWR's oil by drilling on just 2,000 acres," he said. Developing a small section of ANWR would not only create new jobs but would reduce our dependence on foreign oil by up to a million barrels a day."
Members of Congress appear to be willing to listen to the president's plan for ANWR despite much continued resistance. One supporter, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas., said drilling on U.S. soil, in particular ANWR, would make America more self-reliant without doing major environmental harm.
"I don't think a lot of people understand that this is an area the size of the state of Louisiana and the part that would be drilled is the size of Dulles International Airport" outside Washington, D.C., Hutchison said, adding that the area in ANWR ripe for drilling is barren of trees for miles.
But Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said opening up drilling in the Arctic would lead to drilling in other areas, like the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling is not permitted. He added that the effort in ANWR is not a short-term solution.
"By the time that you would get the Arctic in production, it would be another 10 years down the road and it would not be worth it," Nelson said.
He suggested that conservation, including adding fuel efficiency standards on SUVs, producing alternative energies like hydrogen and electric-powered vehicles, would "wean" the United States off foreign oil.
Bush too said he would be interested in research into alternative energies like ethanol and biodiesel.
"We're going to continue to figure out ways to grow our way out of dependence on foreign oil. One day someone is going to come in and say, 'You sure have a lot of soybeans, Mr. President,'" Bush said, referring to the source of biodiesel fuel.
He added that one day, he would like to see all student drivers taking their licensing exams in clean fuel vehicles.
"It won't help him with parallel parking, but it will sure help us be better stewards of our environment," Bush said.