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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 October 2005, 00:50 GMT 01:50 UK
US faces up to energy cut-backs
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita appear to have achieved what green campaigners and the California energy crisis of 2001 could not, namely the belated conversion of the Bush administration to energy efficiency.

Oil platform in Gulf of Mexico
Energy production has been disrupted by two hurricanes in a month

Asked four years ago if Americans should change their energy-thirsty lifestyles, Vice-President Dick Cheney said: "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

But now, with the supply from energy producers in the Gulf of Mexico disrupted by two hurricanes in a month, the White House is changing tack.

On Monday a major campaign was launched encouraging Americans to cut energy use this winter, fronted by a cartoon mascot, Energy Hog.

Consumers are being urged to install insulation in their homes, to use a thermostat to lower winter heating bills, to improve car maintenance and reduce driving speeds, in a raft of advice that for some recalls the strictures of the 1970s energy crisis.

Last week, President George W Bush directed government employees to cut back on non-essential travel, and encouraged them to carpool, telecommute and use buses or the subway.

Air conditioning at the White House was turned down a few notches, while staff were reminded to turn off electronic equipment at the end of the day.

On Wednesday, a national effort will be launched to persuade consumers to switch to light bulbs that use less electricity in a country where almost 20% of residential electricity demand is for lighting.

The surging costs of energy are identified by pollsters as one reason why Mr Bush's approval ratings have fallen to new lows.

How rising energy costs are hitting people in Washington DC

The hurricanes of the past month have laid bare the burdens placed on the strained US refinery system, struggling in the face of huge demand from consumers.

President Bush used a White House news conference on Tuesday to call for the United States to build its first new refineries since the 1970s.

"The storms that hit the Gulf Coast also touched every American with higher prices at the gas pump," the president said.

"It ought to be clear to everybody that this country needs to build more refining capacity to be able to deal with the issues of tight supply," he said, calling it "amazing" that no new US refinery has been built in 30 years.

Yet opponents have hit out at the new energy-saving campaign as a "a toothless" programme.

One leading Democrats urged the White House instead to meet the Clinton administration's goal for the federal government to cut oil use by 20% over five years, or set an even more ambitious target.

"This nation must make a long-term commitment to the adoption of cutting-edge efficiency and alternative fuel technologies.

Federal leadership can help put America on the path toward energy independence," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said.

Some suggest that the US could take further, more stringent measures.

One idea would be to bring back the "double nickel" 55mph (88km/h) national speed limit - imposed during the 1970s energy crisis.

Other measures include the introduction of higher mileage requirements for cars - which Mr Bush opposes - and tougher energy efficiency standards for appliances and products.

Confronting the unthinkable

Meanwhile, there are growing signs that Americans are changing their habits in the face of rising energy costs.

Man filling up car in Mississippi
Gasoline prices above $3 a gallon have curbed spending

Sales of gas-hungry sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have slumped in recent months, while sales of energy-efficient motor vehicles and bicycles have boomed.

Elsewhere, rising sales in products like wood stoves, locking gas caps and solar panels provide evidence of the effects of the energy crunch.

Nationwide consumer spending fell 0.5% in August - the largest monthly fall in nearly four years.

Consumer confidence, as surveyed by the University of Michigan in its index of consumer sentiment, dropped to 76.9 in September from 89.1 in August, the biggest fall in two years.

Sixty-one per cent of Americans say recent gas price increases have caused financial hardship for them and their households, according to the latest Gallup poll.

Some 42% of people in the US are worried about their family finances, while a Gallup survey of confidence in the US economy suggested more than two-thirds of people thought prospects were fair or poor.

Forecasters say heating oil expenses will rise 34% electricity bills 11% across the country this winter - with bills in the MidWest, the region most dependent on natural gas for heating, set to jump by 71%.

The shocks of rising oil prices and natural disasters appear to have jolted the world's biggest energy consumers into confronting the unthinkable prospect of cutting back.

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