WASHINGTON – Leaders of the Big Three U.S. automakers plan to meet with President Bush at the White House next month to discuss issues faced by the industry, officials said Thursday.
Bush will meet with Ford Chairman and CEO Bill Ford, General Motors Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner and Chrysler Group President and CEO Tom LaSorda in their first joint meeting with the president during the Bush administration.
Ford spokesman Josh Gottheimer confirmed plans for the meeting, calling it a "continuation of a constructive conversation with the White House." Officials with GM and DaimlerChrysler AG declined comment.
The New York Times reported Thursday the meeting was expected to take place on May 18. White House spokesman Alex Conant could not confirm or deny the meeting, noting the president's schedule is typically not available that far in advance. He said the president "always appreciates hearing the concerns of America's manufacturers."
Officials helping plan the meeting expected it to involve discussions of environmental and energy concerns, including ways of expanding the availability of ethanol, along with health care and pension costs faced by the industry, and currency issues.
With energy security and high gasoline prices on the minds of Americans, Bush has touted the benefits of ethanol, an alternative energy source typically derived from corn in the U.S, along with vehicles powered by hybrid and clean diesel engines.
"I set a goal to replace oil from around the world. The best way and the fastest way to do so is to expand the use of ethanol," Bush said in an address Tuesday to the Renewable Fuels Association.
One of the main barriers to an expansion of ethanol is availability. The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition estimates that about 685 out of the 165,000 fueling stations across the country offer ethanol blends — less than 1 percent of the stations — and most are found in Midwest states.
Bill Ford told the Times in an interview that many of the 1.5 million motorists who own Ford flexible-fuel vehicles, which are capable of using blends of ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, either do not know about the benefits or cannot find ethanol-based fuels in their communities.
Ford said in the interview the meeting would not involve discussions about a federal bailout for the industry similar to the 1979 move by Congress to save Chrysler. U.S. automakers and their allies in Congress have stressed that no bailout is necessary, but they note the U.S. auto industry face competitive disadvantages against foreign automakers, such as Toyota Motor Corp., on issues such as trade and health care.