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Bush, Shifting Gears, Urges Americans to Conserve Fuel

By David Leonhardt, 
Jad Mouawad 
and David E. Sanger

With fears mounting that high energy costs will crimp economic growth, President Bush called on Americans on Monday to conserve gasoline by driving less. He also issued a directive for all federal agencies to cut their own energy usage and to encourage employees to use public transportation.

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

Bush promised to dip further into the government’s petroleum reserve, if necessary, and to continue relaxing environmental and transportation rules in an effort to get more gasoline flowing. On Capitol Hill, senior Republicans called for new legislation that they said would lower energy costs by increasing supply and expanding oil-refining capacity over the long run.

Even though Hurricane Rita caused much less damage to the oil industry than feared, the two recent hurricanes have disrupted production in the Gulf of Mexico enough to ensure that Americans are facing a winter of sharply higher energy costs. The price of natural gas, which most families use to heat their homes, has climbed even more than the price of gasoline recently.

Households are on pace to spend an average of $4,500 on energy this year, up about $500 from last year and $900 higher than in 2003, according to Global Insight, a research firm.

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 criticized conservation as “a sign of personal virtue.” Also that year, Ari Fleischer, then Bush’s press secretary, responded to a question about reducing American energy consumption by saying “that’s a big no.”

“The president believes that it’s an American way of life,” Fleischer said, “and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life.”

Bush, speaking Monday 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 1970s. Nor did Bush propose new policies to encourage conservation. But he was more explicit than in the past in saying that Americans should cut back.

Oil companies spent much of Monday assessing the damage from Rita, which seemed to spare many oil and gas facilities. Still, the gulf’s entire oil output and about four-fifths of its natural gas production remained shut down Monday, less than a month after Katrina left the industry stretched thin.

The Gulf of Mexico produces about 7 percent of the oil consumed in the United States and provides 16 percent of the nation’s natural gas needs.