WASHINGTON – President Bush's new chief of staff said Sunday that the White House plan to address high gasoline prices will have only a modest impact and the ultimate goal must to be reducing dependence on foreign oil.
"This is a very large problem," Josh Bolten said on "FOX News Sunday" in his first interview since taking over April 14 as Bush's top aide. "It's built up over many years — decades, in fact. It's not going to be solved in the short run by some silver bullet."
Administration officials, on the Sunday talk shows, drove home the importance of reducing U.S. consumption of foreign oil. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it a "trap" and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman acknowledged that rising gas prices had become a crisis. But he suggested that finding short-term fixes to soothe consumers angered by pump prices topping $3 per gallon might be difficult.
"The suppliers have lost control of the market. Demand exceeds supply," Bodman said, citing demand worldwide from China, Indian and other growing economies. "Clearly, we're going to have a number of years — two to three years — before suppliers are in a position to meet the needs of demands."
Rice left the impression that the president is not going to take action against oil-producing nations for high prices through the World Trade Organization, as some lawmakers have urged. She said the United States is encouraging oil-rich countries to increase production, but the long-term solution is to diversify sources of energy.
"We need to deal with the long-term problems of technologies that may get us out of this trap," Rice said on ABC's "This Week." "But I can tell you that if anything has surprised me as secretary of state, it is the degree to which the kind of search for hydrocarbons is distorting international politics. That means that the quicker we get about the business of reducing our reliance on oil, the better we're going to be."
Bolten said he didn't know how much the president's plan would lower the price of a gallon gas. "I expect the effects would be relatively modest," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"All of those policies need to come together because we need to leave behind a legacy in which this country is headed toward weaning itself from its dependence on foreign oil," he said. "We've been going in the wrong direction for years, for decades."
Bush said last week that he wants Congress to give him the power to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars. The fleet average of 27.5 miles per gallon has not changed for two decades.
Bolten said the president does not have a specific increase in mind and the transportation secretary would take time to figure it out. Bolten said Bush does not just want to raise the standard, but change it so that it is based on vehicle weight and size.
Bodman reiterated his opposition to imposing a tax on oil companies if they make excessive profits. When tried several years ago, the windfall tax "did not work. It resulted in decreased production," Bodman said.
Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute, defended his industry's profits, saying U.S. companies have consolidated over the years to compete with the growing size of foreign oil companies. U.S. oil company profits "typically come close to industry average," he said.
He also said the unrest in Iraq has exacerbated the situation by disrupting oil production.
"As soon as you can stabilize the civil situation, they'll significantly be able to ramp up production. But it would take years," Cavaney said.
Bodman agreed. "As we see Iraqi security forces gradually take control, we'll see improvements," he said.
Another oil industry lobbyist, former Sen. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, said "saber rattling" on Iran is contributing to the high cost of crude oil. "We'd see gasoline prices above $5 or $6; crude oil above $100 if we bomb Iran," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the U.S. must start looking at increasing domestic supply such as "sensible drilling." Rolling back gas taxes or handing out $100 rebates, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has proposed, might soothe consumers this summer but not in the long run, she said.
"There's a lot of finger-pointing and blaming that's going on right now," said Murkowski, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "What we're faced with are the laws of supply and demand, and Congress isn't going to be able to repeal the laws of supply and demand."
But Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the U.S. cannot assume it can "drill our way out" but should renew efforts on boosting competition and creating an alternative fuel market. "We need a strong law in place to protect consumers today."