Facing energy battle, Bush pushes Alaska drilling

Calling fuel cells and the hybrid cars he once mocked "the wave of the future" but not the only answer to U.S. dependence on foreign oil, President George W. Bush urged drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge. With three American-made energy-saving experimental vehicles -- none of which is available to consumers -- parked behind him, Bush focused on his commitment to conservation rather than his controversial plan to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas exploration. Bush, who made fun of former Democratic Vice President Al Gore's support for hybrid vehicles during the 2000 election, backed their development in his energy plan last year and embraced them as "good news for our environment" on Monday.But Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe accused Bush of "scrambling to find photo-ops and symbolic gestures" in an attempt to convince Americans that his energy plan was not an "industry-authored payback." The White House energy plan become the center of controversy after Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, sued the administration to get details of the role Enron Corp. and other energy companies played in developing it.On the White House lawn, Bush inspected a Chevy Silverado GMC Sierra hybrid truck, which combines an electric motor and a conventional V-8 engine; a Ford Escape ATV hybrid electric vehicle, which combines an electric motor and a fuel-efficient gas engine; and a Chrysler Town and Country Natrium, a hybrid fuel-cell minivan that has no tailpipe emissions.Although Japanese-based auto companies Toyota and Honda already have hybrid models on the road, their vehicles were not on display. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer cautioned reporters against reading anything into their exclusion."As far as the president is concerned, the consumers should have a choice of whichever vehicle they want to purchase," he said. "The president wants to generally promote the use of hybrid fuel vehicles as a way of promoting conservation."Bush said that while there was a lot of work to be done to make fuel cells economically viable, "We happen to believe fuel cells are the wave of the future, that fuel cells offer incredible opportunity."The White House says Bush's commitment to conservation, including $3 billion in tax credits over 11 years for purchases of hybrid vehicles and a $150 million "freedom car" plan focusing on development of fuel-cell technologies that run on hydrogen, has been overshadowed by the controversy over drilling in the wildlife refuge.Bush pressed the Senate to pass an energy plan that embraced increased production as well as conservation, saying it would create jobs and help wean America from foreign oil, of which it imports more than 10 million barrels a day. "This is an important piece of legislation and I urge quick action," he said.The Republican president faces tough going in the Democratic-led Senate, where debate resumes this week on an energy bill that does not allow drilling in the wildlife refuge, believed to hold up to 16 billion barrels of crude.The Republican-controlled House of Representatives included ANWR drilling in its energy bill last August."Any sound comprehensive energy policy must both increase production and reduce consumption," Bush said. "Technologies will enable us to preserve our environment as we explore."A final Senate vote is expected in mid-March. Congressional aides said on Monday lawmakers likely would deal last with the most contentious issues -- ANWR drilling and boosting fuel economy requirements.

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