WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is considering easing environmental requirements for a multitude of gasoline blends and streamlining permits for new refineries to increase fuel supplies and fight soaring prices, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said Wednesday.
Evans, a former Texas oil company executive, said that the cost of gasoline, which hit a record national average of $2.06 per gallon this week, was affecting driving habits, with people making fewer trips to the store.
Mindful that oil shocks in the 1970s and 1980s were severe enough to push the country into a series of recessions, Evans said the administration was taking very seriously the current run-up in prices and the impact it might have on consumer's buying patterns.
"It is of great concern to us," Evans told the AP. "The president will take all the steps we can to deal with the problem."
A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll on Wednesday indicated that almost six in 10 people surveyed said they expected gasoline prices would cause them a financial hardship this summer and lead them to drive less.
Political heatThe administration is feeling political heat as well from the surge in energy prices. Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry, blaming Bush's foreign policy, said Wednesday that "instability and danger in the Middle East are driving up the price of oil."
On a campaign swing in Oregon and Washington states, Kerry said people are paying more for gasoline because the administration did not pressure the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to lower prices by producing more oil.
Evans said the administration was exploring ways to reduce the requirements that now exist for gasoline blends in different parts of the country to deal with specific air pollution problems.
"We've got to think real hard whether we need 17, 18, 19, 20, whatever it is, different varieties of fuel in this country," Evans said. "That puts certain areas of the country at a very high risk of being dependent on a single source supplier."
Evans said the need for these "boutique fuels" was hurting the country's ability to import gasoline. While there is surplus capacity at refineries worldwide, foreign refiners often do not produce the specialty blends required only in America.
But Vickie Patton, a senior lawyer with Environmental Defense in Boulder, Colo., said that the use of cleaner-burning gasoline blends had been "consistently one of the single most effective measures to protect public health and the environment from harmful air pollution."
Evans also suggested looking "at the regulations and permitting processes as to expanding and building our own refineries here in America." He said a new refinery had not been built in this country in more than 25 years.
Evans is the second Cabinet member to raise the issue of the numerous gasoline blends that are required to meet environmental standards.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, testifying before a House panel last month, said the administration was seriously considering requests from California and New York to waive requirements that they sell specially blended gasoline. The requirements for the special blends of gasoline make fuel more expensive.
EPA spokesman John Millett said the agency has not indicated when it might make a decision.
Evans also noted that Bush's energy bill was still tied up in Congress. Many Democrats are opposed to a proposal that would open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling.