WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday rejected Democrats’ calls to ease high gasoline prices by tapping the nation’s petroleum reserve, saying such action would leave America vulnerable to terrorism in a time of war.
He also chastised Congress anew for failing to pass his energy proposal.
“I anticipated this three years ago,” Bush told reporters following a meeting with his Cabinet. “I asked my team to put together a strategy to make us less dependent upon foreign sources of energy. I submitted that plan to the United States Congress.”
Of his critics, Bush said: “On the one hand, they decry the price at the pump, and on the other hand, they won’t do anything about it. They won’t take action. Congress needs to pass the energy plan.”
Politicians have argued over who should bear the blame for the rise in gas prices, now more than $2 a gallon.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and others favor pressuring the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which cut production in March and April, to boost its output to meet demand. Others want to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an idea Kerry has not endorsed. Kerry has said that new contributions to the reserve should be slowed to ease petroleum supplies.
“Once again, the president is making excuses instead of actually coming up with a plan to deal with the gas price crisis that is roiling the American economy,” Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer said. “The fact is that his energy bill doesn’t lower gas prices, does little to solve our long-term energy problems and fails to end the country’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil.”
The White House has insisted there are no plans to tap the reserve, which was created for emergencies.
“We will not play politics” with the stockpile, Bush said.
“That petroleum reserve is in place in case of major disruptions of energy supplies to the United States,” he said. “The idea of emptying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would put America in a dangerous position in the war on terror. We’re at war. We face a tough and determined enemy on all fronts, and we must not put ourselves in a worse position in this war, and playing politics with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would do just that.”
No one has advocated “emptying” the reserve, as Bush said, however. The reserve — 660 million barrels, or equivalent to more than two months of imports — is in salt domes on the Gulf Coast. It was created after the 1973 oil embargo to counter supply disruptions.
A group of Democratic senators has introduced a resolution calling for the release of 1 million of barrels of oil a day from the stockpile for up to 60 days, arguing that would force down gas prices.
While Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and the White House have attempted to use the high energy prices as a rallying point for passage of broad energy legislation by Congress, most energy experts say the measure contains little that would reduce U.S. dependence on oil or affect gasoline or crude oil prices in the short term.
The president did not elaborate on how tapping the reserve might leave the country more vulnerable.
Bush said he sympathized with people stung by higher prices at the pump.
“I fully understand how that affects American consumers, how it crimps the budgets of moms and dads who are trying to provide for their families,” Bush said. “How it affects the truck driver. How it affects the small-business owner.”
But he said had Congress approved of his plan to drill in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, “an additional million barrels of oil would have been coming out of that part of the world, which would, obviously, have a positive impact for today’s consumers.”
“It’s time for some action here to get us less dependent,” he said. “They need to pass that which I have submitted to Congress so this country becomes less dependent on foreign sources of energy.”
In a related development, Sen. Ron Wyden has blocked confirmation of Bush’s nominee to head the Federal Trade Commission, saying he has not gotten any indication the agency would act to lower gas prices.
Wyden, who repeatedly has urged the FTC to stop what he called anticompetitive oil company practices, said he had placed a hold, or procedural obstacle, after meeting with nominee Deborah Majoras.
Wyden, D-Ore., said Majoras offered no assurances that under her leadership, the FTC would “change its policy of inaction to protect consumers.”