WASHINGTON – With gas prices expected to hover at record highs through the summer, President Bush on Tuesday called for price-fixing investigations and several measures aimed at holding down the fast-rising costs of driving.
Amid growing Republican unrest about the politics of $3-plus gasoline, Bush told the Renewable Fuels Association he will take the unusual step of suspending shipments to the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to boost supply and help hold down oil prices.
The president also said he will temporarily ease environmental regulations that require the use of cleaner-burning fuel additives to cut down on summertime pollution.
Bush renewed his call for greater domestic oil production, including in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; the construction of new U.S. refineries; and new tax breaks to anyone who buys a hybrid vehicle such as Toyota’s Prius this year. Currently, only the first 60,000 vehicles produced by each manufacturer are covered by the tax break, which tops out at $3,400.
Still, according to industry experts and administration officials, Bush’s efforts at best are likely to shave a few cents per gallon off the cost of gasoline.
“Energy experts predict gas prices are going to remain high throughout the summer, and that’s going to be a continued strain on the American people,” Bush said in his speech.
Bush ordered three federal agencies to investigate whether companies are manipulating the cost of gasoline, boosting prices as many report record profits. The administration asked state governments to do the same.
Despite Tuesday’s tough rhetoric, neither the White House nor Congress is rushing to hit the oil industry in the pocketbook.
Republicans negotiating a major tax bill have agreed to strike Senate-passed measures that would raise taxes on the major oil companies by nearly $5 billion over five years.
And Bush’s statement that Congress should roll back tax breaks for the industry is less dramatic than it sounds. His proposal merely stretches out a tax write-off from oil exploration from two years to five years, a plan that industry officials do not oppose.
Democrats said Bush’s response is insufficient and politically motivated. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats proposed suspending for 60 days the tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and the tax of 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel.
The plan would cost at least $6 billion, which Democrats said should be covered by increasing taxes on oil companies.
The White House on Tuesday rejected a tax on some oil company profits. White House spokesman Scott McClellan called it a “failed command-and-control approach of the past.”