Reducing Oil Dependence, Health Care Slated for President's State of Union Address


WASHINGTON (AP) - In his first State of the Union address to a Democratic-controlled Congress, President Bush is calling for Americans to slash gasoline consumption by up to 20 percent by 2017.

Bush envisions the goal being achieved primarily through a sharp escalation in the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels that the federal government mandates must be produced. The rest of the fuel use reduction is to come from raising fuel economy standards for passenger cars, Joel Kaplan, White House deputy chief of staff, told reporters in a briefing before Bush's Tuesday night speech to a joint session of Congress.

The president is proposing to set the amount of ethanol and other alternative fuels that must be blended into the fuel supply at 35 billion gallons by 2017, up from 7.5 billion gallons in 2012. He also wants to expand the standard to include not just ethanol but a wide range of oil alternatives, such as biodiesel, methanol, butanol and hydrogen, Kaplan said.

Though some argue that such a drastic increase is unrealistic, but Kaplan said the White House is banking on the new mandate - which would need approval from Congress - spurring investments in the industry and giving technological research a boost.

The other piece of Bush's energy proposal is something he has unsuccessfully asked Congress for in the past - the ability to rewrite mileage rules for new car fleets. The White House calls it a safe way to improve car mileage, but some critics suggest that it could instead spur automakers to produce more gas guzzlers.

The Transportation Department already has revamped its the rules for pickups, sport utility vehicles and minivans, setting a sliding mileage scale that is based on a vehicle's size. The overall standard was increased slightly; smaller vehicles now must meet higher mileage requirements than do larger ones. The biggest SUVs were exempted until 2011.

Bush wants the same ability to reform mileage rules for passenger cars, which today must meet a fleet average of 27.5 miles per gallon, a standard unchanged in two decades. He would include a system of trading or "banking" credits to meet new standards, Kaplan said.

In the 9 p.m. EST speech, the president goes before lawmakers with a much-abbreviated topic list, hoping to capture the public's attention at a time when 2008 presidential contenders and Capitol Hill's new Democratic leaders present fierce competition for headlines. So he is dangling new and recycled ideas before lawmakers in four key areas - energy, education, immigration and health care.

With debate over the Iraq war sending Republicans scurrying away from the president and his job approval rating hovering in the mid-30 percent range, Bush's overall agenda for the speech was twofold: present himself to the public as a leader with a sincere desire to work across party lines on practical solutions and place pressure on Democratic leaders to either go along or offer alternatives.