WASHINGTON – Trying to calm anxieties about soaring energy costs, President Bush is using his State of the Union address this week to focus on a package of energy of proposals aimed at bringing fuel-saving technologies out of the lab and into use.
In Bush's vision, drivers will stop at hydrogen stations and fill their fuel-cell cars with the pollution-free fuel. Or they would power their engines with ethanol made from trash or corn. More Americans would run their lights at home on solar power.
Bush has been talking about these ideas since his first year in office. Proposals aimed at spreading the use of ethanol, hydrogen and renewable fuels all were part of the energy bill that he signed into law in August, but that hasn't eased Americans' worries about high fuel prices.
Americans were hit with the biggest jump in energy prices in 15 years in 2005, and worries about the cost of gas and heating oil have damped spirits about the economy despite other recent encouraging signs.
Add in the unrest in the Middle East, and energy becomes a major problem for the president to address Tuesday night.
"I agree with Americans who understand being hooked on foreign oil as an economic problem and a national security problem," Bush said in a recent interview with CBS.
Eight in 10 Americans surveyed earlier this month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said gasoline prices were a big problem.
Home heating fuel and health care were the other major economic concerns. It's not a coincidence that Bush will spend much of his State of the Union reassuring Americans that he has a plan to address energy and medical costs.
House Democrats sought to take the luster off Bush's speech with a television commercial that accuses the president and Republicans of tilting their policies toward the pharmaceutical, oil and investment industries. It shows lawmakers cheering Bush's words from three previous State of the Union addresses, and asks: "What Special Interest Will the Republican Congress Rubberstamp This Time?"
Officials said the commercial would air only once, on Fox, in the run-up to Bush's speech, making it more like a guerilla-style attack on the GOP than an attempt to mold public opinion.
Bush told CBS that he does not support a big raise in the gas tax, as others have proposed. Instead, he is looking for tax breaks that encourage new technologies, which is popular with farmers, with industry and with consumers of those products.
"We have got to wean ourselves off hydrocarbons, oil," Bush explained. "And the best way, in my judgment, to do it is to promote and actively advance new technologies so that we can drive — have different driving habits."
For example, he said, the federal government could push more widespread use of corn-based ethanol and spur production from other sources.
Almost all ethanol produced now comes from corn. Although non-corn ethanol from sources like grasses, wood chips and even garbage is widely talked about, a practical and cost-effective process for producing it appears years away.
Bush noted to CBS that about 4.6 million cars on the road in the United States can run on ethanol. The fuel works in more than 30 models, including General Motor's Yukon, Chevrolet's Silverado and Ford's Taurus. However, almost all drivers of those vehicles outside the Corn Belt fill up with gasoline.
Automakers and environmentalists are also excited about the prospect of fuel cells, which would run on hydrogen that would only emit water instead of gas fumes. But fuel cell vehicles are extremely expensive to produce and lack an infrastructure of fueling stations to make them viable. The government has said it hopes hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be available in car showrooms by 2020.
When it comes to alternative ways to power homes and businesses, very little U.S. electricity now comes from renewables such as wind, solar, geothermal, wood and waste. But that share is expected to increase as the price of fossil fuel rises.