President Bush urged Americans on Monday to cut back on unnecessary travel to make up for fuel shortages caused by Hurricane Rita as he prepared to take his seventh trip to the Gulf Coast. Bush said the government was ready to release fuel from its emergency oil stockpile to alleviate high prices.
WASHINGTON President Bush urged Americans on Monday to cut back on unnecessary travel to make up for fuel shortages caused by Hurricane Rita as he prepared to take his seventh trip to the Gulf Coast.
Bush said the government was ready to release fuel from its emergency oil stockpile to alleviate high prices. And he suggested he would name a federal official to oversee the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast -- after local officials first produce a vision for their rebuilt communities.
The president spoke after he attended a meeting at the Energy Department in which officials told him they still were trying to assess the damage to oil production and refineries in Rita's path.
Bush said he would get a personal report from local officials Tuesday when he visits the refinery towns of Beaumont, Texas, and Lake Charles, La. He planned to travel between the two cities by helicopter and get an aerial view of the damage.
Meanwhile, he encouraged motorists to conserve energy and said he has directed federal agencies to do the same.
"If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees," Bush said. "We can encourage employees to car pool or use mass transit, and we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There's ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation."
Bush sent a memo to agency and department heads, saying the federal government must "lead by example and further contribute to the relief effort by reducing its own fuel use during this difficult time." He instructed them to report to him within 30 days, describing which steps they took to conserve.
The White House will be looking at ways to cut down its fuel use, press secretary Scott McClellan said, although that doesn't include curtailing the president's plans to return to the region this week.
Bush made a short trip Monday night to attend a dinner for Gen. Richard Myers, the retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's home, not far from the White House. The president's motorcade included more than a dozen vehicles.
The president returned Sunday from a three-day trip in which he stopped in four cities that have been a base for government response to the storm. As he has in most of his previous trips to the areas hit by the hurricanes, Bush spent most of the time in meetings with state and local officials -- many of them reporting by videoconference.
On Saturday, in a visit to the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., some of Bush's briefers were linked from the White House situation room steps from the Oval Office.
Still, McClellan said it is important that the president get a firsthand look at emergency operations and lift the spirits of workers there.
"I know the president's visit yesterday to the joint field office in Baton Rouge was very much appreciated," McClellan said. "You saw the enthusiasm from all those who have been working 24/7 to help the people of the region rebuild their lives and recover."
Sixteen Texas oil refineries remained shut down after the storm, and crews found significant damage to at least one in the Port Arthur area, said Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens.
Bush said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who briefed him along with Interior Secretary Gale Norton, is working with Houston officials to help get trucks into that city to help refill sold-out gas stations. He said he also instructed Bodman to consider how the Strategic Petroleum Reserve can be used to help lower gas prices, with about two-thirds of Americans responding to recent polls saying high gas prices are causing them financial hardship.
The reserve holds nearly 700 million barrels of oil in four underground salt caverns along the Gulf of Mexico. While the caverns are protected by nature, the sites have surface buildings and a system of pipelines and pumps that are exposed to the elements.
The Big Hill site near the Texas-Louisiana border sustained "minor damage" from Hurricane Rita and the status of another at West Hackberry in Louisiana is uncertain because access roads are flooded and preventing access, according to Energy Department officials. The two other sites sustained no damage.
If oil is made available from the reserves, it likely will be in the form of a loan to specific refineries that would turn it into gas, Energy Department officials said.
After Katrina, DOE approved loans of 13 million barrels of oil to refineries in Louisiana that could not get crude because of supply disruptions. DOE spokesman Craig Stevens said there has not been a request for more reserve oil at this time.
Congress plans to move quickly this week on legislation aimed at providing incentives for refinery expansion or constructions and provisions that are aimed at more energy production, especially natural gas. Other bills would ease some air pollution requirements on refineries, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling and allow states to override existing bans on natural gas drilling in coastal waters.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president wants to work with Congress to increase refining capacity and expand environmentally responsible oil and gas exploration, although the White House is still reviewing the new proposals that will be debated this week.
"We want to make sure that we do everything we can to help with the supply disruption," Bush said.
Source: Associated Press