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Feeding the addiction
Media General News Service


February 08, 2006

WASHINGTON - When President Bush despaired that the nation had become "addicted to oil," it was difficult to tell where he was going with that line. Was he prepared to turn it into a big domestic climax to his career?

His State of the Union ideas for making fuel out of switchgrass and woodchips got a little funding in the president's budget that came out Monday. The Energy Department's $298 million for research into ethanol and biodiesel, as well as solar power, was a trifle in Bush's big war-and-security budget.

Still, a 70 percent increase in the federal alternative-fuels research budget is a lot.

Like the president's ill-starred Social Security initiative, a big new oil-detoxification program will be hard to get off the ground while Bush is fighting the war on terrorism.

It seemed, nevertheless, that Bush was probing for something on the order of President Richard Nixon's opening to China. Bush is a former Houston oil executive whose roots and family heritage are deep in the Texas oil tradition.

Oil is in his blood, just as anti-communism was in Nixon's blood. Some analysts think the credibility of a new program to find an alternative fuel would be greater under an oilman like Bush than it has been under dedicated environmentalists.

Some environmentalists, however, have begun to question whether the president's interest in ending the nation's oil addiction is genuine.

The switchgrass idea came from Auburn University professor David Bransby, according to National Public Radio. The staff of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., passed it on to the White House for inclusion in the president's speech at the last minute.

The administration has in prior years cut the budget for research into promising alternative-fuels programs. A lot more alternative fuels could be available for vehicles now in existence if those programs had been funded adequately.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said only 600 fueling stations in the nation now dispense blends of ethanol and gasoline for the 6 million vehicles already on the road capable of using such fuel. Of these stations, 91 percent are independently owned.

The major oil companies, predictably, are not interested in marketing or selling alternative fuels.

Nothing so far has shown up in either the president's latest budget or State of the Union message to indicate he is disposed toward incentives, like tax credits, to encourage the big oil companies to offer blended fuels at their stations across the country. Motorists hunting for blended fuels will have to work hard and drive a long way to find a few drops.

What the president's budget proposed is finding oil for our addiction. It included $42 million for exploration and other costs on the North Slope of Alaska, where the administration says between 5.7 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil are waiting to be recovered.

In addition to the North Slope, the maneuvering for oil leases on a 6 million-acre area in the Gulf of Mexico called Lease Sale 81 is reaching a frenzy despite protests from the Florida recreation industry. Under Bush and Vice President Cheney, the policy has been to expedite drilling for oil wherever it can be found.

How can Bush decry the nation's addiction to oil on a Tuesday night and boast of an effort in Alaska to feed the addiction the following Monday morning?

Evidently, he feels that it is principally Middle Eastern oil that is driving the American habit. He said his goal was to replace 75 percent of the nation's Mideast oil imports with ethanol and other energy sources by 2025.

Yet oil is all the same. It is fungible, chemically and economically. Treating foreign oil differently than American oil is problematic. In a world economy, holding Middle Eastern oil away with one hand, while turning on the spigots of American oil with the other, is a contradiction.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service,

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