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Experts agree U.S. is addicted to oil, but differ on how to cure it

WASHINGTON—President Bush's pledge to cure America's "addiction to oil" through alternative fuels and new battery technologies is winning praise from energy experts as a good but modest first step.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey champions alternative fuels and fears that U.S. dependence on foreign oil jeopardizes national security. He thinks the president's proposals are moderate and will be met easily. The bigger hurdle, he said, is weaning carmakers off gasoline.

"The most important thing is tax credits. What I would have loved to have seen is a deal with Detroit to go entirely to flex-fuel vehicles," Woolsey said, referring to vehicles that can run on either gasoline or ethanol.

"What you need for this is an Apollo-like project of public-private partnerships ... to achieve the independence," said former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, now governor of New Mexico and a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. "He didn't propose any tax incentives, plus he ignored conservation."

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Bush set a distant goal of energy independence and promised support for breakthrough technologies such as cellulosic ethanol, an alternative fuel made from plant fibers.

"We're told that if we continue to focus on research, we'll be able to within six years have a competitive fuel to gasoline," Bush told an audience in Tennessee on Wednesday.

Americans consumed 400 million gallons of gasoline a day last August, a record, until hurricanes cut production and drove up prices. Ethanol production hit 3.4 billion gallons in 2004. As the industry grows, it could help satisfy the nation's thirst for fuel, but like the gasoline industry it will be hard-pressed to keep pace with American drivers' ever-growing consumption. Also, a gallon of ethanol provides 20-25 percent less energy than a gallon of gasoline.

The president also vowed to step up research into battery technologies, with the goal of expanding beyond today's popular hybrid vehicles, which get 50 miles per gallon or better. The next-generation electric plug-in hybrids, which Bush said would rely more on electricity than gasoline, are plugged in at night to power up and could get well more than 100 mpg.

"This particular aspect of the State of the Union gives a whole lot of credibility to the concept of electric cars and plug-ins," said Bill Moore, the publisher of a Web site devoted to alternative energy cars, www.evworld.com. Moore called the president's goals attainable but he said they'd require sacrifice from consumers in the form of higher gas taxes to discourage consumption or higher mileage standards for new vehicles.

Pressed about sacrifice, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Wednesday that "many Americans believe they're already sacrificing by paying the prices they're paying for gasoline and heating oil and natural gas."

Bodman's Energy Department responded to high energy prices by creating a cartoon-like character called the Energy Hog to promote conservation, but Bodman doesn't favor setting specific conservation targets.

Measures of how serious Bush is about pushing the nation toward energy independence will be visible soon. On Monday, the president will propose his fiscal 2007 budget. Energy-conservation groups hope that it will include major increases in funding for clean energy research.

Last Tuesday Bush pledged a 22 percent funding increase for clean energy programs, but since fiscal 2002 funding for research and development in energy efficiency has shrunk by an inflation-adjusted 14 percent, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Another sign of Bush's seriousness will come later this year, when the Department of Transportation must establish new fuel-efficiency standards for light trucks and SUVs. The administration has nudged them up only slightly in the past, bowing to U.S. carmakers, which resist higher fuel-economy rules. They're paying for it now, as sales are off sharply for large SUVs and other gas guzzlers.

Ford, which saw an 8 percent drop in SUV and truck sales last year, drew attention last month when it introduced the Escape Hybrid, a small SUV test model that can run on a battery, gasoline or ethanol. Ford also recently began offering a flex-fuel model of its popular F-150 truck and is making 250,000 flex-fuel cars. But that's only a small fraction of the nearly 17 million vehicles sold last year in the United States.

Even so-called green cars face challenges.

Japanese hybrids get 50 mpg or more, but some owners complain that their batteries aren't reliable. And although 5 million vehicles on America's roads can run on ethanol or gasoline, outside the Midwest there are few places to buy ethanol. Most flex-fuel cars are running solely on gasoline.

Advocates of the new technologies want Bush to push U.S. automakers to focus more on fuel economy, using either new rules or tax incentives.

"We need to reduce what we consume, which means more stringent fuel-economy regulations," said Michael Millikin, the editor and publisher of www.greencarcongress.com, a Web site devoted to "sustainable mobility."

The president could lead by example by purchasing large numbers of hybrids and ethanol-run vehicles for government fleets, he suggested.

"To have the president of the U.S. say America is addicted to oil is a good thing ... let's now create a market and get the industry following," Millikin said.

Big Oil isn't exactly cheering Bush's initiative.

The National Petrochemical & Refiners Association issued a statement saying oil and natural gas will remain the foundation fuels for the American economy for many years.

"It follows that U.S. energy policy must continue to target its efforts on increasing domestic production of petroleum products and natural gas supplies, and the efficient usage of these fuels while maintaining environmental progress," said Bob Slaughter, the president of the association.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060202 BUSH ENERGY

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