Bush plan suggests shift on global warming

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- As President Bush campaigns to break what he calls the U.S. addiction to imported oil, he is quick to argue that his proposals would make the country safer and more prosperous.

What Bush does not mention is that a significant part of his new energy initiative, a major push to develop renewable fuels from farm products, also could curb global warming, a subject the president has largely avoided since taking office.

Bush, who will visit a Colorado laboratory today to highlight his energy plan, has resisted mandatory measures to limit emissions of the greenhouse gases scientists blame for rising temperatures and refused to join the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact aimed at alleviating global warming. He has argued that to do either would harm the economy and cramp Americans' lifestyles.

But now, as he promotes cellulosic ethanol - a clean-burning fuel made from plant matter - Bush is advocating an approach long regarded as one of the keys to tackling global warming.

It is a rare point of commonality between Bush and environmentalists, and an example of how the president looks for coalitions - however unusual - to push his priorities.

Some analysts say it also marks a shift by the president, who once disputed warnings that global warming was a problem. Now, with news reports chronicling the effects of rising temperatures and influential newcomers - including defense hawks, evangelical Christians and some Republican lawmakers - raising concerns about climate change, Bush is paying more attention.

Bush "has begun to acknowledge that global warming or climate change is a problem," said Michael E. Kraft, a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay political scientist specializing in environmental policy. "He's still not convinced it's a big problem, but nevertheless there's a shift in his tone ... because the administration is detecting a little shift in the alignment."

Using ethanol, made by breaking down such things as wood chips or switch grass into sugar, then distilling them, could yield a "dramatic" cut in harmful emissions, according to a recent article in the journal Science.

The Argonne National Laboratory has found that the additive could reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than 90 percent.

An increase in funding for research and development into cellulosic ethanol is one facet of Bush's new energy initiative, which set a goal of replacing more than 75 percent of the nation's oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

Bush included $150 million in next year's budget - 65 percent more than this year - to research technologies for transforming plant waste into ethanol and make it widely available by 2012.

He is also calling for increased funding for research into certain forms of solar power, advanced batteries for hybrid vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells.

"The dependence upon oil is a national security problem and an economic security problem," Bush said yesterday at a battery-testing facility in a Milwaukee suburb before visiting a Michigan solar energy company. He never mentioned global warming or climate change.

The omission was no surprise to Christie Todd Whitman, Bush's former Environmental Protection Agency chief, who said there is little political advantage for Bush in talking about the climate change benefits of his policies. The president opposes to stringent steps to curb global warming, she said, and sees no consensus among the public or Congress to do so.

"The American people don't see this as a No. 1 issue, so [Bush's team is] not really willing at this point to take a lot of action, which they fear would cost jobs. If it comes about as a result of other steps they're taking, then fine," Whitman said in an interview. "They don't volunteer it because they don't see that they're going to get a political benefit for it, and it'll just make some people mad."

The new energy initiative is a way for Bush to show his concern for the nation's energy problems - chief among them the high price of gasoline and home heating oil - but it stops short of steps that carmakers and other manufacturers oppose, such as requiring higher vehicle fuel efficiency or limiting carbon emissions from factory smokestacks.

Environmentalists call those huge holes in Bush's agenda but say the ethanol push is a step in the right direction on global warming, even if the president doesn't advertise it that way.

"The good news is that the global warming benefits of these advanced forms of ethanol come along for the ride, even if you only care about oil savings," said Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The administration acknowledges that the ethanol proposal and other elements of Bush's new energy initiative would have environmental benefits. Bush has not emphasized the global warming benefits, officials say, because the president is focused instead on explaining how his plan can lower gasoline and heating bills.

"All of the elements of the [plan] will employ cleaner and more efficient technologies and renewable energy sources to reduce future U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and address the global long-term challenge of climate change," said Michele St. Martin, a spokeswoman for the Council on Environmental Quality.

Bush also has lavished funding on the hunt for technologies to combat climate change, St. Martin said, spending $20 billion since he took office.

"It is an issue that we take seriously," Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said yesterday.

He deflected questions about Bush's meeting last year with novelist Michael Crichton, a global warming skeptic whose 2004 book State of Fear is about environmentalists and scientists who twist data to ignite a nonexistent climate crisis.

Bush and Crichton were "in near total agreement," during the session, which was arranged by Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, according to a new book, Rebel-in-Chief, by journalist Fred Barnes.

Not all environmentalists agree that cellulosic ethanol is an answer to the world's warming problems. Some scientists say corn-based ethanol - the only kind now available - takes more energy to produce than it yields and has far less energy content than gasoline. Others worry that cultivating large swaths of land for ethanol-producing plants could damage ecosystems.

Even those who see a potential benefit characterize Bush's proposals as insufficient to wean the country off of gasoline. Still, the plan has powerful proponents.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are lending financial and political muscle to the ethanol push. Both produce "flex-fuel" vehicles that can run on ethanol blends, which help them to meet fuel economy standards imposed on gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and other large cars.

Also prodding Bush to take action on energy alternatives is the Set America Free Coalition, a diverse group of defense hawks and environmental activists that is advocating renewable fuels and clean vehicles, primarily for national security reasons.

Deron Lovaas of the National Resources Defense Council, a member of the group, said, "Everyone in the coalition has very different reasons for wanting the same thing, which is reduced oil addiction, breaking the oil habit."

Bush's proposal could lend momentum to legislation proposed by a bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas, that seeks to cut the nation's oil-consumption by 10 million barrels a day in the next 25 years.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told Reuters last month that Bush's energy initiative could yield positive steps from an administration he accused of doing too little about global warming.

"Whatever his arguments, he is making the right investments for the climate," Schellnhuber said, adding that by 2009, it is possible that "we will have some steps in the right direction on climate policy without the administration admitting that they have grasped the problem."

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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