Bush Signals Willingness to Tap Oil Reserves

Following a Monday briefing on Hurricane Rita's effect on the oil and natural gas infrastructure along the Gulf Coast, President Bush says he is willing to use the nation's strategic petroleum reserves to make up for any shortages caused by hurricane damage.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now in the aftermath of Rita, President Bush is focusing on energy supplies. The president was briefed this morning on the storm's effect on the oil and natural gas infrastructure along the Gulf Coast, and after that meeting, the president said he is willing to use the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to make up for any shortages caused by the hurricane damage.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: A lot of our production comes from the Gulf, and when you have a Hurricane Katrina followed by a Hurricane Rita, it's natural, unfortunately, that it's going to affect supply.

INSKEEP: That's the president speaking this morning at the Energy Department.

We're going now to NPR White House correspondent David Greene. Good morning, David.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What else did the president say he's going to do about the energy situation?

GREENE: Well, the president said that there are a lot of options. He's considering including opening up more foreign blends of energy that could temporarily be allowed into the country. It seemed like a message of, `Hey, I'm on top of this.' This is a subject the president knows a lot about, obviously, and you could tell he was speaking in specifics about numbers of barrels and specific pipeline capacities. I think he was caught off guard by Hurricane Katrina and now this is one example of an area where he can say, `Look, if things get bad, if we get into the winter season and heating prices go up,' at least he can send the message that it didn't catch him by surprise. He was taking every piece of action he possibly could to prevent prices from rising, and as you know energy prices are--can be pretty politically volatile for a White House.

INSKEEP: Absolutely. Now the president has also been talking about changing the role of the military in a disaster. What specifically has he said, if anything, that he wants to do here?

GREENE: Well, specifically he hasn't offered many specifics. It was an interesting weekend. He--it was a very stage-managed weekend by the White House. The president appeared with military officials in briefings and they allowed reporters in to see the military talking with precision about how they were responding to Hurricane Rita and they were saying there was this disarray after Katrina, but, you know, `Mr. President, if you give the military a larger role, we could come in and do a better job.' And what the White House is saying is the president's considering a way for there to be some sort of trigger, that after a major storm or major biological attack, automatically the military would at least for some time take the lead role. And, of course, this is something Congress has debated in years past. There are a lot of issues with state's rights and some constitutional questions, so it's a pretty dicey subject, but the president dove in and said this is something he's considering.

INSKEEP: Is it fair to say that you're following around a president who has been trying to regain the initiative, or at least look like he's regaining the initiative?

GREENE: There's no doubt about that, and this was a totally different reaction to the storm. The president, after Hurricane Katrina, was photographed in California holding a guitar after a speech on terrorism. He was speaking about other subjects like Medicare. This time, before Rita was even close to making landfall, the president was sketching out a trip that took him to places that were not in the path of the hurricane, strangely enough. He was in very sunny and dry places--Colorado, San Antonio, Texas. The president did not want to get in the way of relief operations. That was at least what the White House said, but they wanted him to appear to be part of the action, so he was at the US Northern Command in Colorado, he was at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, places that were staging grounds, at least, or coordination places for the military response to Hurricane Rita, and he could be photographed looking at weather maps, looking at predicted rainfall totals and talking to a lot of uniformed military officials about the storm.

INSKEEP: And very briefly, David, do you get the sense that administration officials believe there is a need for changes in emergency response that go more than surface deep?

GREENE: I don't know, Steve. It's hard to say at this point. There's no doubt, whether or not they're really serious about pursuing this, I think they saw this as a way to make it seem like the federal government could be the solution and perhaps help people forget that they were part of the problem after the first storm. We'll see how far the president actually takes it.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.

GREENE: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent David Greene.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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