WASHINGTON – With the U.S. trade deficit growing and gasoline prices soaring, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans contends the Bush administration is working hard to enforce trade regulations and boost oil supplies.
"We're going to fight very hard to make sure that everybody is playing by the same rules as we open up markets around the world," Evans told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.
To lift gasoline production, the Bush administration is considering easing environmental regulations and the permit process for new and expanding refineries, Evans said.
On another subject, he said the beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg will not stop his department from promoting business opportunities for U.S. companies in Iraq. He said entrepreneurs like Berg, who attended a Commerce Department (search) conference in December, were apprised of the security risks they faced.
"We made sure everyone was aware of those risks," Evans said. "Obviously many were. But we gave them access to State Department communiques on the level of risks so that people would go into it with their eyes wide open."
The Commerce Department's Iraq reconstruction site says it gets 50,000 hits a month.
Evens said that even though it is an election year, he expects Congress to approve a trade agreement signed last week with Australia because it is so beneficial for American manufacturers. Under the accord, duties on U.S. manufactured goods disappear as soon as the accord goes into effect.
He was less enthusiastic about prospects for congressional approval this year of trade agreements with Morocco and five Central American nations — Costa Rica, El Salvador (search), Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Evans said he plans to devote more time in the coming months to trade and trade enforcement.
"This administration is committed to free trade and we're also committed to fair trade and a level playing field for our workers and businesses," he said.
He said his department was more aggressive than the Clinton administration in enforcing trade laws, bringing more than 620 market access and compliance cases in the past three years with other governments or foreign companies. He said he has established an unfair trade practices task force that focuses primarily on China.
In the face of record-high gasoline prices, Evans said the Bush administration is prepared to "take all the steps we can" to increase supplies. Options under consideration, he said, include easing environmental requirements to use different gasoline blends for to reduce air pollution and easing the permit process for building new refineries or expanding old ones.
Evans said no new refineries have been built in the United States in more than 25 years.
He said the cost of gasoline, which hit a record nationwide average of $2.06 this week, was already having an impact on driving habits, with people making fewer trips to stores.
A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll on Wednesday indicated that almost six in 10 surveyed said they expected gasoline prices would cause them a financial hardship this summer and could cause them to drive less.
The surge in energy prices is causing political problems for Bush's re-election effort. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (search) on Wednesday blamed Bush's foreign policy for rising energy prices, contending that "instability and danger in the Middle East are driving up the price of oil."
Kerry, stumping for support in the presidential battleground states of Oregon and Washington, said Americans are paying more for gasoline because the administration didn't pressure the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (search) to lower prices by producing more.