WASHINGTON -- Against the backdrop of war over the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, President Bush today was to present what his administration calls a "blueprint for our energy future."
But critics say the president needs to go back to the drawing board. By backing away from ideas that could be construed as unwarranted government intervention, they say, the administration's national energy strategy will do almost nothing to halt the nation's growing dependence on foreign oil and thus avert another oil shock.
The hands-off approach, however, could be just what the public wants, according to pollsters and analysts. Given the recession, some economists say, it may also be just what the economy needs.
"I get the impression that the American public likes its fuel and likes it cheap," said Ted Eck, chief economist for Chicago-based Amoco Corp. And today, he added, "oil's cheap; energy's cheap."
The strategy calls for allowing oil drilling on more federal land in Alaska and off the nation's coasts, a further deregulation of natural gas pipelines and electric utilities and a revival of nuclear power, according to a draft that has been widely circulated.
"As events in the Persian Gulf have demonstrated so aptly, we must reduce our dependence on imported oil from unstable regions," Energy Secretary James Watkins wrote in a forward to the draft legislative package.
Yet critics point out there is no mention of ordering carmakers to build vehicles that would get more miles to the gallon, a proposal already before Congress and one that has been proven to be effective before.
Nor does the policy paper suggest a boost in the federal gasoline tax or an oil import fee, which economists say could quickly cut consumption.
Indeed, the strategy's only substantial "command-and-control" effort is a measure that would require vehicle fleets to use more domestically produced alternative fuels, such as ethanol and compressed natural gas.
The tilt toward supply-side measures bothers even some of the plan's intended beneficiaries. "We're a little disappointed there's not more emphasis on conservation and efficiency," said Julie Stewart, a spokeswoman for the American Gas Association.
Some of these industry officials also doubt whether the strategy will work. "I don't think it will have much of an effect on oil imports," said John Lichtblau, chairman of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation in New York.