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Bush Administration the First Steered by Oilmen

At first, the watchword was incentive — and the byword was secrecy. Vice President Dick Cheney led a task force on energy that would not even reveal its own members or advisors. Later, the administration acted aggressively on at least one task force recommendation — that drilling be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in certain sensitive offshore areas previously closed to exploration and development.

Those who urged more conservation — or less dependence on foreign oil — were told that cutting back would never make enough difference and that only a big technological breakthrough, such as fuel cells, would lower the American demand for oil.

No one ever said the demand might not rise, however, and that has been the trajectory. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the price of oil resumed the kind of leaping increases associated with the early and late 1970s. This year, fears about the war widening from Iraq into Iran (and from Afghanistan into Pakistan) helped push the price to a historic high.

In the second Bush term, the growing global demand for oil and the continued disruption of supplies caused by the Iraq war has increased upward pressure on prices at the wellhead. A barrel of crude went from about $25 at its low point in the first Bush term to nearly $100, with many experts saying it would go far higher — and faster — than anyone had expected just a few years earlier.

New Message, Same Approach

Along the way, President Bush changed his message and moderated his pro-production stance. He even bemoaned how the U.S. had become "addicted" to oil in his 2006 State of the Union address to Congress.

Still, policy did not change to match the rhetorical shift. The administration backed greater use of ethanol in motor fuels and showed more interest in energy saving, but it refused to raise gasoline taxes to decrease consumption, continuing instead to pump more oil into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which many critics had argued could be reduced as a means of lowering prices.

David Kirsch spent 16 years working on energy issues at the State Department, part of it during the administration of George W. Bush. He left that job in 2006 and now works for PFC Energy, a global energy consultant.

"What this administration has been looking for is a technological fix, something that will change the nation's addiction to oil without actually forcing Americans to change their behavior," he said.

Attack on Iran Remains a Concern

He said the administration has done things that have made the problem of oil prices worse. The Iraq war definitely drove up prices by creating worries about supply, though he adds that it is impossible to quantify just how much of the jump in prices is a result of the war.

"The main worry out there is that the administration could still bomb Iran," he said. "It's now or never, and that is the key worry out there in the markets for the next 14 months."

The Bush administration downplays such connections.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino recently said that the price of oil has been building for a decade. When asked if tensions with Iran will drive prices even higher, she declined to comment on market conditions or potential market movements.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.