Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Bush Conservation Con of 2005

It's official. President Bush wants us all to conserve energy!

Here's how the Houston Chronicle topped its coverage of yesterday's remarks by President Bush:

President urges Americans to conserve gasoline
He says storms offer U.S. chance to reassess its energy policies
By JULIE MASON
WASHINGTON - President Bush, the former oilman whose administration has emphasized expansion of oil production, on Monday urged Americans to conserve gas to help replenish a national supply that's been battered by two hurricanes.

Bush's plea kindled memories of former President Jimmy Carter's call for conservation in the 1970s when OPEC nations cut back exports.

"The storms have shown how fragile the balance is between supply and demand in America," Bush said after a briefing at the Energy Department, which Carter helped create to prevent the very energy crises that dogged his presidency.

Bush, who has seen his public approval ratings slide this year as gasoline prices increased, urged motorists to avoid wasteful trips, saying all Americans must do their part.

"People just need to recognize that the storms have caused a disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive ... on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful," Bush said.
Outside the disaster zone, the New York Times took a similar tone:

President Calls for Less Driving to Conserve Gas
By DAVID LEONHARDT, JAD MOUAWAD and DAVID E. SANGER
Published: September 27, 2005
With fears mounting that high energy costs will crimp economic growth, President Bush called on Americans yesterday to conserve gasoline by driving less. He also issued a directive for all federal agencies to cut their own energy use and to encourage employees to use public transportation.

"We can all pitch in," Mr. Bush said. "People just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption," he added, and that if Americans are able to avoid going "on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful."...

Mr. Bush's comments, while similar to remarks he made shortly after the disruption from Hurricane Katrina pushed gasoline prices sharply higher, were particularly notable because the administration has long emphasized new production over conservation. It has also opted not to impose higher mileage standards on automakers.

In 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it cannot be the basis of a sound energy policy." Also that year, Ari Fleischer, then Mr. Bush's press secretary, responded to a question about reducing American energy consumption by saying "that's a big no."...

Mr. Bush, speaking yesterday after he was briefed at the Energy Department, did not use the dour tone or cardigan-wearing imagery that proved politically deadly for Jimmy Carter during the oil crisis of the 1970's. Nor did Mr. Bush propose new policies to encourage conservation. But he was more explicit than in the past that Americans should cut back.
So, in short, Pres. Bush yesterday for the first time emphasized conservation over production in calling on Americans to curb their energy consumption as a way to do their part to reduce the nation's dependence on oil and, unlike Pres. Carter, he did it without wearing a sweater.

The Bush White House has long been expert at putting out two simultaneous messages; one for its core that the media will miss, one for the media to spoonfeed to the not-paying-attention crowd. This supposed new conservation policy is an excellent example. Let's consider a few observations the media coverage would have us believe and examine whether they're supported by the actual text.

1) Energy conservation was the most important part of Pres. Bush's remarks. It was, after all, the primary topic of the two stories we just looked at. The Houston Chronicle's sub-head, in conjunction with its headline, suggests that the president wants to reassess policies regarding energy usage, rather than production. But, by my count, in the president's remarks, this apparent major reversal of administration energy policy, this clarion call for the nation to change the way it thinks about and uses energy, constituted the 12th and only the 12th out of 14 paragraphs in the White House transcript of his prepared remarks. Here's the entirety of what he said about conserving energy:

Two other points I want to make is, one, we can all pitch in by using -- by being better conservers of energy. I mean, people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive when they -- on a trip that's not essential, that would helpful. The federal government can help, and I've directed the federal agencies nationwide -- and here's some ways we can help. We can curtail nonessential travel. If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees. We can encourage employees to carpool 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.
In fact, most of this eloquent appeal for national sacrifice concerns not individual Americans, but the federal government. If you pare it down to only those sentences that address Americans directly, here's the entire basis for those big headlines:

Two other points I want to make is, one, we can all pitch in by using -- by being better conservers of energy. I mean, people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive when they -- on a trip that's not essential, that would helpful.
Come to think of that, the first sentence of his two-sentence call to arms doesn't ask anyone to do anything, it merely states the uncontroversial fact that we can be "better" conservers of energy. It's really only the single following sentence that approaches, though does not achieve, becoming a request of the American people. Let's break it down further. The first part of it is a simple declaratory observation that everyone knew beforehand: "people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption" -- well, I think it's safe to assume people have fulfilled that need by now. So, what does that leave us with as the core -- the entirety, actually -- of the president's new national call for conservation? Here it is: "if they're able to maybe not drive when they -- on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful." To repeat (that historians may sooner recognize, as journalists already have, this pivot of history):

"If they're able to maybe not drive when they -- on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful."

-- President George Walker Bush, September 26, 2005, unveiling the bold outlines of his dramatic call for a national commitment to the conservation of energy

2) Pres. Bush for the first time emphasized conservation over production. The Times tells us specifically: "Mr. Bush's comments...were particularly notable because the administration has long emphasized new production over conservation." That would make his comments notable only if they represented a change from the administration's "long" emphasis. But what did the president emphasize yesterday?

Let's skim through the 13 out of 14 paragraphs of his prepared remarks that don't address conservation and see whether we can detect any trace, any lingering evidence of an emphasis on new production:

President Discusses Hurricane Effects on Energy Supply
U.S. Department of Energy
Washington, D.C.

10:59 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: I want to thank...

A lot of our production comes from the Gulf, and when you have a Hurricane Katrina followed by a Hurricane Rita, it's natural, unfortunately, that it's going to affect supply. There's about 1.56 million barrels of oil that is shut in...So that when you really look on a map you have, if you follow the path of Katrina and the path of Rita, it pretty much covers a lot of production in the Gulf of Mexico.

Right now the producing companies are assessing damage to the platforms and rigs...

Secondly, gasoline prices, obviously, are on our mind, and so we've watched very carefully the assessments done on the refining -- the refineries there on the Gulf Coast. There are a lot of -- a lot of gasoline refineries in the Houston area, in the Beaumont area, in the Port Arthur area, as well as Lake Charles, and the Louisiana area. There was about 5.4 million barrels per day that were shut in as a result of Rita and Katrina. A million of it is back up already, and we expect another 1.8 million barrels a day to get back on line relatively quickly because the storm missed a lot of refining capacity down the Texas coast...

The other thing that's going to affect the ability for people to get gasoline is, of course, the pipelines. In other words, you manufacture the gasoline in a refinery and you have to ship it across the country...

My point is, is that the storm affected the ability to get gasoline to markets...

And so while there's a shortfall because of down refining capacity, we will work with -- we have instructed EPA to leave the rules in place, or to suspend the rules that were in place, keep the suspension in place, which would make it easier to increase supply, and continue to get supply of gasoline here...

Let me repeat, we'll use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help refineries with
crude oil. We will continue the waivers to allow the winter blends of fuel to be used throughout the country. We will continue to waiver that -- to allow broader use of diesel fuel. Because we understand there's been a disruption in supply and we want to make sure that we do everything we can to help with the supply disruption.

...In other words, we're taking action to help deal with the shortfall caused by Katrina and Rita.

[Bold new call for conservation-based national sacrifice]

And, finally, these storms show that we need additional capacity in -- we need additional refining capacity, for example, to be able to meet the needs of the American people... But it's clear, as well, that we're also really dependent on the capacity of our country to refine product, and we need more refining capacity. And I look forward to working with Congress, as we analyze the energy situation, to expedite the capacity of our refiners to expand and/or build new refineries....
Call me crazy, but it seems to me like the administration's long-standing emphasis on production remains firmly intact.

3) Pres. Bush said, "all Americans must do their part," as the Houston Chronicle paraphrased him. Must? I see "if" and "able" and "maybe" and "helpful," but I don't see "must." So, where did "must" come from?

Let's check the White House "fact sheet" for yesterday's event:

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 26, 2005

Fact Sheet: President Bush Discusses Energy Supplies in the Gulf Region

The Federal Government Is Prepared To Again Tap The Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR)...
That's not it.

The Federal government is working closely with state and local authorities as well as the private sector to monitor the situation, support repairs, and ensure adequate energy supplies. The President is committed to working with Congress to examine our energy supplies and expedite the capacity of our refiners to expand or build new refineries...
That's not it.

President Bush Has Called On Americans To Conserve Energy and Help Hurricane Recovery. The American people can do their part by conserving fuels and ensuring that hardest-hit areas have the energy supplies they need for first response and restoration efforts.
Hey, there we go! Of course, it only says Americans "can" do their part, not that they "must" do their part and, just in case the Houston Chronicle got confused, a White House "fact sheet" is not actually the president.

4) Bush has experienced a fact-based epiphany about the nature of our dependence on oil. Here's what the Houston Chronicle wrote:

Bush's plea kindled memories of former President Jimmy Carter's call for conservation in the 1970s when OPEC nations cut back exports.

"The storms have shown how fragile the balance is between supply and demand in America," Bush said after a briefing at the Energy Department, which Carter helped create to prevent the very energy crises that dogged his presidency.
Bush's eco-friendly observation about the "fragile...balance" between supply and demand sits cozily between evocations of Carter's dramatic, politically dangerous calls for national sacrifice to wean us off dependence on the world's finite oil supply, foreign and domestic. But what was the actual context for Bush's observation? Here's what he said:

...finally, these storms show that we need additional capacity in -- we need additional refining capacity, for example, to be able to meet the needs of the American people. The storms have shown how fragile the balance is between supply and demand in America. I've often said one of the worst problems we have is that we're dependent on foreign sources of crude oil, and we are. But it's clear, as well, that we're also really dependent on the capacity of our country to refine product, and we need more refining capacity.
So, while the Houston Chronicle cites Bush's supply-demand reference in the context of Carter's call to reduce demand, Bush's actual intent was to make the case for increasing the supply.

5) Pres. Bush's remarks were Carter-like in their scope or political significance. Here's how Pres. Carter began a televised speech to the nation on April 18, 1977:

Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.

It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.

We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren.

We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.

Two days from now, I will present my energy proposals to the Congress.
In fact, the press that actually stood in the same room with Bush realized full well that he had nothing to say to America about conserving energy. How do we know? Well, when handed a major news story like a famously anti-conservation, anti-environmental president reversing course and calling for dramatic national cutbacks in energy usage, wouldn't you expect one of the reporters to ask even a single question about it? Didn't happen. Here's what they asked, instead:
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I want to ask you about a different result of these storms, and that is the racial divide that's been exposed in this country...

Q Mr. President, now that Judge Roberts is heading for confirmation, how close are you to choosing your second nominee for the Supreme Court? And how much of a factor is diversity going to be?

Q In suggesting that the Department of Defense might become the first responder in catastrophic disasters, are you not conceding that the Department of Homeland Security is not up to the task?

Q Mr. President, you had mentioned refining capacity. I'd like to ask you about an offer from the Kuwaiti oil minister, who has said that he is willing to offer to build a capacity -- a refining capacity in the U.S.; it would be the first time in about 30 years. Says he's asked for White House assistance -- assistance -- assistance getting permits and fed support and so forth. What do you think of a proposal like that?
(The president's answer? "I am for increasing supply...because that will take pressure off of price. U.S. refiners...have said, we'd like to expand onsite, but the amount of paperwork necessary to do so is staggering...we ought to look at those rules and regulations...if you take a good look at what it means to build a refinery, or expand a refinery, you'll find there's a lot of regulations and paperwork that are required, thereby delaying the capacity for more product to come on to the market and discouraging people from doing -- building refineries...The first thing we need to look at is how to encourage people to do just that without getting -- without all kinds of time being taken up through the bureaucratic hurdles.")

Q Some have called for the continued idea of the reconstruction czar...

END 11:20 A.M. EDT
Any more questions?

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