W A S H I N G T O N, May 8, 2001 -- As gas prices soar and blackouts loom, the Bush administration is taking on what it considers an "energy crisis" with mixed messages.
Wrapping up a meeting with the emir of Bahrain on Monday, President Bush said conservation would be part of the national energy policy Vice President Dick Cheney will propose next week.
"We'll have a strong conservation statement," Bush said.
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was adamant Monday when asked whether the president would ask Americans to stop using so much energy.
"That's a big 'no,'" Fleischer said. "The president believes that it's an American way of life, that it should be the goal of policy-makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one."
The president, he said, considers Americans' heavy use of energy a "reflection of the strength of our economy, of the way of life that the American people have come to enjoy."
The average price of gas has jumped nearly $0.09 a gallon to $1.76, with dealers in California and Chicago reportedly bracing for $3 a gallon gas this summer. And if gas prices hit that $3 mark, drivers will get sympathy from the White House, but no price controls. And, for now, no presidential effort to get Americans to conserve.
Bush considers the problem long term — with the blame going back a decade because the oil industry has not built new refinery capacity.
"This problem was a long problem in the making and if anypolitician has a magic wand that he can wave over gas prices tolower them the president would be happy to listen," Fleischer said.
But many scientists are now saying the administration is too focused on finding new supplies, and belittling conservation.
"If that is their plan," said Alan Nogee of the Union of Concerned Scientists, "then I really cannot understand any rationale for that other than to increase the profits of the traditional energy supply companies."
Nevertheless, expanding energy on the supply side is expected to be the cornerstone of the the administration's plan.
A senior administration official involved in preparing the policy tells ABCNEWS the White House will try to counter complaints that Bush is ignoring conservation by arguing new technologies will let Americans save energy without making sacrifices. From more energy-efficient consumer products, to cleaner-burning power plants, to less-ecologically disruptive extraction technologies — the Bush administration will argue Americans can have their cake and eat it, too.
But after a series of high-profile moves to undo Clinton administration environmental initiatives backfired on Bush, the administration also remains sensitive to the politics of energy policy. Every aspect of the energy policy roll-out is being crafted to protect the president's green flank.
So watch for the White House to talk up tax incentives to encourage conservation, while emphasizing that Bush will not actually press people to cut their energy use.
Modernizing and expanding the nation's energy infrastructure also will form a major thrust of the administration's energy plan. Bush will call for building new refineries, power plants, pipelines, and new components of the electricity grid to increase the capacity and efficiency of the nation's energy-delivery systems.
But the drive to expand the infrastructure comes with some risk, as Bush will propose relaxing regulatory requirements to build power plants, refineries and pipelines. In particular, Bush wants to reverse the Clinton administration's interpretation of the Clean Air Act, which inhibited infrastructure expansion.
ABCNEWS' Terry Moran and Ann Compton contributed to this report.