WASHINGTON – President Bush called for construction of more nuclear power plants (search) and urged Congress on Wednesday to give tax breaks for fuel-efficient hybrid and clean-diesel cars. He also said he was powerless to bring down high gasoline costs.
Calling the problem one of not having enough energy supplies to keep pace with demand, Bush said technology will provide the answer in the long run by allowing development of more domestic energy sources.
"Technology is the ticket," said Bush, calling today's tight energy markets "a problem that has been years in the making" and will take time to resolve. He said he was determined to spur development of more nuclear power, coal, oil and renewable energy and again called on Congress to provide him with a national energy agenda.
"This problem did not develop overnight and it's not going to be fixed overnight. But it's now time to fix it," Bush told a group of small-business owners in his second speech on energy in a week.
Bush on Thursday night will hold his sixth news conference since his November re-election on energy policy and Social Security (search), part of the White House's attempt to get the president together with reporters every month.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush would have a 10- to 12-minute statement before taking questions. The news conference is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. EDT Thursday in the East Room.
The high cost of gasoline, followed by a winter of record heating bills, has begun to have both economic and political fallout and is believed to be pulling down Bush's popularity.
The president said he knows "many people are concerned" about the high gasoline prices that now average more than $2.20 a gallon nationwide, but he lamented that he can't do anything about it.
"I wish I could," he said. "If I could, I would."
In 2000, when he was seeking the Republican nomination for president and oil was nearing $28 a barrel, Bush criticized the Clinton administration for high fuel prices and said the president must "jawbone" oil producing nations and persuade them to drop rates.
Some congressional Democrats have called on Bush to use the government's emergency oil reserves to try to force crude prices down — or at least stop diverting oil into the reserve. The White House repeatedly has rejected such a move, arguing the reserve is only for addressing supply disruptions and should be filled to capacity.
The president did not mention the reserve in his remarks Wednesday. Instead, he sought to focus on what senior administration officials acknowledge are long-term fixes aimed at reducing U.S. reliance on oil imports.
Last year imports accounted for nearly 58 percent of the 20.5 million barrels of oil used each day, according to the Energy Department. Only about a third of the country's oil came from imports in 1973 when the Arab oil embargo prompted long lines at gas stations.
"We've got a fundamental question we got to face here in America," Bush said. "Do we want to continue to grow more dependent on other nations to meet our energy needs? Or, do we need to do what is necessary to achieve greater control of our economic destiny?"
Bush called for building more nuclear power plants and refineries, saying that industry needs to be assured that such facilities can be approved without lengthy permit reviews. And he called for Congress to enact $2.5 billion in tax breaks over 10 years for people who buy gas-electric and clean-diesel automobiles. These cars account for only a small percentage of vehicles in showrooms.
The president directed the federal agencies to work with communities to see if refineries can be built on closed military bases, and he called on Congress to provide a "risk insurance" to protect companies against regulatory delays.
The last application for a new reactor was submitted in 1973. Since then, Bush said, more than 35 nuclear power plants have been stopped "because of bureaucratic obstacles" while France has built 58 reactors and now relies on nuclear power for 78 percent of its electricity.
Nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity production.
While Bush lamented America's heavy reliance on foreign energy, he also called for aggressive expansion of imports of liquefied natural gas. He said Congress should make clear the federal government has final say over locating LNG import terminals, even when states or communities object to projects.
There are 32 proposed LNG import projects on the books and federal regulators "must expedite their review," Bush said. Four import facilities operate in Massachusetts, Georgia, Maryland and Louisiana.
"It's time for America to start building again," he said.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada called Bush's initiatives "little more than half-measures and wrongheaded policies that will do nothing to address the current energy crisis or break the stranglehold that foreign oil has on our nation."
Reid said Senate Democrats will offer a much larger package of tax incentives — double the $8 billion approved by the House — and funnel more of the money to renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures.