Bush Says U.S. 'Addicted to Oil,' Calls for New R&D Effort

President Bush last night made energy independence a prominent theme in his annual State of the Union address, outlining a research and development program that he says will help reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil by 75 percent over the next 20 years.

"America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world," the former oil executive turned president said in frank remarks broadcast nationally from the House chamber. "Here we have a serious problem.

Claiming $10 billion has already been spent on alternative energy sources during the first five years of his administration, Bush called on lawmakers to provide another 22 percent boost in Energy Department research for the coming fiscal year. The funds would be directed at alternative ethanol production, investments in zero-emission coal-fired power plants, solar and wind technologies, and new nuclear power plants.

The focus on foreign oil imports during Bush's annual address to Congress served as an amplification of his previous addresses -- he has mentioned a desire to curb the nation's dependance on Middle East oil in each of the last four speeches to Congress.

Yet with oil prices nipping close to $70 per barrel, Bush also appeared last night to shift away from past calls to expand domestic energy supplies. Bush's speech did not mention last year's adoption of a new energy law, and it also left out any reference to drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Global warming, air pollution and other administration environmental initiatives such as Gulf Coast wetlands restoration were also left on the cutting room floor.

Instead, Bush opted to take on broader themes. In the close of the energy portion of his speech, Bush said his administration's efforts could help the United States "move beyond a petroleum-based economy."

Bush's emphasis on Middle East oil imports drew standing ovations from both Democrats and Republicans, yet the ideas appeared to divide congressional leaders following the speech.

"We just did that a few months ago, and on a straight party line, they voted us down," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters, referring to a 47-53 energy bill vote last June that would have required the president to take action to effectively reduce oil consumption by 40 percent by 2025.

"This is Bush double speak," Reid added. "Whatever he says, think the opposite."

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine gave the Democrats' nationally televised response, matching Bush's pledge on technology and also calling for a windfall profit tax on energy companies. Kaine urged stronger conservation measures and criticized Bush's environmental record, a line also take up by some Republicans. "Two words missing from the State of the Union were conservation and efficiency," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.).

On the other side was Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who said Bush's focus on alternative energy was a welcome change from past speeches that pushed oil and gas development. "It's a fabulous thing that DOE got to tell him what else is out there," Domenici said during a brief interview after the speech.

Asked how Bush's proposals would take shape on Capitol Hill, Domenici said most of Bush's ideas would be incorporated during the annual appropriations process for the Energy Department. On a separate track, Domenici reiterated his plans to address natural gas supplies through legislation in his committee. He also said he would be open to addressing Bush's nontraditional ethanol provisions in the event they need additional authorization.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Bush provided more specific legislative ideas on medical liability and social security. On energy, Frist said, "I feel like we have a fair amount of leeway to respond legislatively in the U.S. Congress."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was equally forthright and appeared to leave open the possibility of pursuing new policy directives this year, even with the last energy bill not even a year old. "We are going to come back and revisit the whole energy issue," he said.

Bush's proposals will be flushed out in greater detail next week when he delivers his annual budget request to Capitol Hill. He also will give a series of energy speeches in the coming month that further outline his agenda on the issue, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said in a brief interview.

Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed to this report.

Reprinted from E&E Daily with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net 202/628-6500.