WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is considering easing environmental requirements for a multitude of gasoline blends and streamlining permits for new refineries to increase fuel supplies and fight soaring prices, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said yesterday.
Evans, a former Texas oil company executive, said in an Associated Press interview that the cost of gasoline, which hit a record national average of $2.06 per gallon this week, was affecting driving habits, with people making fewer trips to the store.
Mindful that oil shocks in the 1970s and 1980s were severe enough to push the country into a series of recessions, Evans said the administration was taking very seriously the current run-up in prices and the impact it might have on consumers' buying patterns.
"It is of great concern to us," Evans said. "The president will take all the steps we can to deal with the problem."
A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll yesterday indicated that almost 6 in 10 people surveyed said they expected gasoline prices would cause them a financial hardship this summer and lead them to drive less.
The administration is also feeling political heat from the surge in energy prices. Democratic presidential challenger John F. Kerry, blaming President Bush's foreign policy, said yesterday that "instability and danger in the Middle East" are boosting oil prices.
On a campaign swing in Oregon and Washington states, Kerry said people are paying more for gasoline because the administration did not pressure the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to lower prices by producing more oil.
Evans said the administration was exploring ways to reduce the requirements that now exist for gasoline blends in different parts of the country to deal with specific air pollution problems.
"We've got to think real hard whether we need 17, 18, 19, 20, whatever it is, different varieties of fuel in this country," Evans said. "That puts certain areas of the country at a very high risk of being dependent on a single source supplier."
Evans said the need for these "boutique fuels" was hurting the country's ability to import gasoline. While there is surplus capacity at refineries worldwide, foreign refiners often do not produce the specialty blends required only in the United States.
But Vickie Patton, a lawyer with Environmental Defense in Boulder, Colo., said that the use of cleaner-burning gasoline blends had been "one of the single most effective measures to protect public health and the environment from harmful air pollution."