White House sets example in drive to conserve energy

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When President George W. Bush made an appeal this week to conserve energy, much of the public never heard it. It was soft-pedalled to avoid aggravating a run on petrol that already is in short supply.

Just how far the president intends to press the matter remains to be seen. Scott McClellan, White House spokesman, said Mr Bush had “directed the staff to . . . scale back non-essential travel, to look at other ways that we can conserve energy, as well”. The White House plans to remind staff to turn off lights, printers, copiers and computers when leaving.

The effort to conserve energy will also include all government vehicles, with people being encouraged to share rides or use more public transport. Even the presidential motorcade is under scrutiny and would be scaled back, added Mr McClellan.

US drivers were already changing their ways before Mr Bush's plea, however. The Port Authority, which manages the bridges, tunnels, bus terminals, airports, seaports and the Path commuter train in New York and New Jersey, said traffic on roads, through tunnels and over bridges in the New York/New Jersey area was down 6 per cent on Labor Day weekend last month, the last big driving holiday of the US summer, compared with 2004's Labor day.

High prices at the petrol pump, which last month exceeded $3 a gallon in many US states, have also begun to prompt motorists to conserve.

Demand in the past month was almost 3 per cent lower than a year earlier, the US Energy Department calculates.

And the drop is being felt on the US gasoline futures market, where prices have fallen by nearly a fifth this month. But in Houston, many people think nothing of commuting 40 miles each way to work by car. Texans pride themselves on having big vehicles, such as SUVs and Hummers.

While most say prices at the pumps are starting to hurt, they insist they need their vehicles to transport children or to make long journeys bearable.

George Ball, chairman of Sanders Morris Harris, the Houston investment bank, says some will be disappointed by the absence of new initiatives from the Bush administration, such as a major gas tax for conservation. “Critics are apt to say he [Bush] missed an opportunity to seize a moment.

“Supporters will laud his programme as pragmatic and realistic,” he said.

Bob Linden of PA Consulting says the federal conservation restrictions are difficult to evaluate. It is unclear how much electricity consumption could be shifted from on-peak to off-peak hours without operational changes.

Amy Myers Jaffe, research fellow at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy, says she tries to explain to people in Boston that the administration's goal was to get them, for example, not to drive to Maine to see the autumn foliage.

“If you are going on a bike ride, take a bike ride near your house for national unity,” Ms Jaffe said. The response was: “Won't that hurt Maine's tourist industry?”

“People really don't get it,” Ms Jaffe said.

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