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Bush, allies launch campaign for more energy sources

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush, saying America has neglected its energy problems too long, launched a campaign Wednesday for more nuclear reactors, oil refineries, gas pipelines and electrical grids. He promised to ensure that ”nobody in America gets illegally overcharged” for energy.

Democrats said his plan, due Thursday, would endanger the environment and do nothing to lower prices now.

With even some Republicans demanding quicker fixes than Bush has in mind, presidential advisers for the first time were offered vague assurances of short-term relief from high energy bills.



”We’re going to solve this problem,” Bush said, previewing a report he said would be an honest, hard look at the reasons for the nation’s energy shortages. ”This isn’t just a report that’s going to gather dust.”

The president said in a picture-taking session with his Cabinet that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will monitor electric rates and the Federal Trade Commission will watch gasoline rates in case consumers are overcharged.



But the president acknowledged he was simply restating the agencies’ missions, not ordering a formal inquiry. Indeed, he answered ”none whatsoever” when asked if there was evidence that the gasoline industry is gouging consumers.

Earlier, his press secretary argued that simply releasing the report might curb gasoline prices because the promise of future supplies would drive down prices among investors who speculate on oil trends.

On Capitol Hill, Vice President Dick Cheney, the plan’s architect, met privately with rank-and-file House Republicans, attempting to ease fears that Americans will punish GOP candidates in 2002 elections.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said he hoped to get the energy package approved and ready for Bush’s signature by July 4. He conceded, however, that some recommendations, such as expanded drilling on federal land and taking private land for power lines, ”will be hotly debated” by Congress.

Republicans in Congress and at the White House are increasingly concerned that voters will blame them for energy shortages and rising prices. Bush and Cheney are especially vulnerable to criticism because they made fortunes in the oil business.

”The president has no program for the short term, telling people they are on their own,” said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. ”At a time when consumers are paying record prices, at a moment when energy companies are making record profits, we have an obligation to the American people to address their concerns.”

The half-inch thick report, complete with glossy pictures and pie charts, contains 105 recommendations – some of which will go to Congress and others that will be carried out by executive order.

The White House rhetoric is focused on poll-tested conservation initiatives, with aides noting that 42 of the recommendations offer incentives for people and businesses to curb their fuel demands. But the president’s focus is on strategies to make the United States less reliant on foreign oil and less susceptible to aging electrical transmission systems.

He wants to ease restrictions on oil and gas development on public lands and open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Regulations covering new electrical power plants would be slashed, and the federal government would be allowed to seize private property for transmission lines. Tax breaks would go to companies running nuclear plants, and those firms would face fewer regulations.

”It’s going to be pretty hard to blame Republicans for a problem that’s been evolving for 20 years or more, maybe 30 or 40 years,” Lott said.

The White House is worried, just the same.

Press secretary Ari Fleischer, who previously had maintained that there are no short-term answers to the nation’s energy woes, said the report could bring quick relief.

”The president’s proposal will help in the short term,” Fleischer said. ”For the first time in years, focusing on a comprehensive solution, the president is confident that markets will see that more supply is on the way, conservation is starting to be emphasized, and the combination of more conservation and greater supplies has an effect on markets. And as those markets are affected, it has a ripple effect that benefits consumers, benefits the economy and helps to lower prices.”

House Democrats have already released their own energy blueprint that urges the government to hold down price increases for electric power while sparing environmentally sensitive areas from oil and gas exploration. Bush opposes price controls, saying they would exacerbate the problem in the long run.

Some Republican lawmakers are proposing short-term solutions such as reducing the 18.4 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax and offering more conservation incentives. For a second day, Cheney tried Wednesday to calm GOP lawmakers voicing dissent in private Capitol Hill meetings.

Bush plans to travel to Iowa and Minnesota, two key states during presidential campaigns, to promote his plan Thursday and will discuss hydroelectric power in Pennsylvania on Friday. The White House is releasing a state-by-state analysis of the program’s impact on Thursday.

Environmental groups plan rallies and critical newspaper ads in each of the cities Bush visits.

On the Net:

The White House: http://whitehouse.gov

Energy Information Administration: http://www.eia.doe.gov

North American Electric Reliability Council: http://www.nerc.com


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