WASHINGTON — In the face of surging gasoline prices, President Bush clung Tuesday to his long-term remedies for solving the nation's energy problems, renewing his call to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, build more U.S. oil refineries and expand America's use of nuclear energy.
Bush also said that he'd be open to new ideas on energy, including a summer-long suspension of gasoline and diesel taxes, a move supported by Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton but rejected by Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination.
But almost in his next breath, Bush touted the energy policies that he's advocated since entering the White House in 2001.
"I'll tell you this: That if Congress is truly interested in solving the problem, they can send the right signal by saying we're going to explore for oil and gas in the U.S. territories, starting with ANWR," Bush said during a wide-ranging White House news conference. "...Somehow if you mention ANWR, it means you don't care about the environment. Well, I'm hoping now, people, when they say ANWR, it means you don't care about the gasoline prices people are paying."
Bush's comments came as the average price of gasoline hit $3.60 per gallon nationwide. While signaling a willingness to suspend the 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and the 24.4-cent tax on diesel fuel, Bush repeated his objections to proposals to tap the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way to combat high oil prices.
Clinton supports tapping the reserve. McCain advocates suspending U.S. purchases for it. Obama supports suspending purchases for the reserve and advocates tapping it only if there's a short-term disruption in the oil supply.
Bush said tapping the reserve or suspending purchases for it would have a minimal impact on the price of oil and could leave the United States vulnerable if terrorists attacked major oil facilities overseas.
He said that the United States is buying only 67,000 to 68,000 barrels of oil per day for the strategic reserve, while world demand for oil is 85 million barrels per day, so he contended that the U.S. reserve purchases are too small to affect global pricing.
"If I thought it would affect the price of oil positively, I would seriously consider it," he said. "But when you're talking about one-tenth of 1 percent of global demand. ...I don't think you get any benefits from making the decision. I do think it costs you, you know, in the case of oil and national security risk."
Bush said if there were an easy way to solve rising fuel prices, he'd have done it by now.
"I think that if there was a magic wand to say, 'OK, drop price,' I'd do that," Bush said. "...But there is no magic wand to wave right now. It took us a while to get to this fix."
Congressional Democrats blasted Bush for his remarks and accused him of being out of touch with consumers.
"Only President Bush could be surprised to learn that gas was approaching $4 a gallon and then claim the White House is concerned about high gas prices," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a written statement. "President Bush's Rose Garden rhetoric will not lower gas prices for Americans struggling in a weakening economy; he must work with Democrats in Congress to invest in renewable energy and lessen our dependence on oil."
Some energy experts say there's little Bush or anyone else can do in the short term to ease consumers' pain at the gas pump.
"It's a world market, and the U.S. every year is a smaller player," said Frederic Murphy, a professor of operations management and management science at Philadelphia's Temple University.
However, Murphy said that tapping ANWR could reduce imports in the long run and would have a slight impact on world price. Tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve might help temporarily, too, he said.
"One way to boost confidence is a structured approach to release oil from strategic reserves," Murphy said, adding that resolving an oil workers strike in Nigeria by a unit of Exxon Mobil Corp. also could help.
On other topics, Bush:
_ Said that the United States was making progress in Afghanistan despite Sunday's assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
_ Defended his administration's decision not to provide details of Israel's bombing of a facility in Syria last September. Only last Thursday did White House officials reveal that the bombed building was similar to a North Korean nuclear facility.
"First, we were concerned that an early disclosure would increase the risk of a confrontation in the Middle East or retaliation in the Middle East," Bush said, adding that 22 key members of Congress were briefed on the matter at the time. "We felt the risk of retaliation or confrontation in the Middle East was reduced."
_ Predicted that McCain will be elected president and will continue the war on terrorism.
"Here I am interjecting myself in the '08 campaign, just like I told you I wouldn't," Bush said with a smile. "That's unfair, isn't it?"