Bush Returning to Gulf Coast Today

9-27-05 - President Bush was getting a personal look at Hurricane Rita's damage to U.S. energy resources with a visit to the birthplace of the modern oil industry.

Bush planned to receive a briefing on hurricane damage Tuesday in the port city of Beaumont, Texas, where the Spindletop well erupted a century ago and created the Gulf of Mexico's oil boom. The city is now home to refineries that turn oil into gasoline, many of which were knocked out of power by the storm.

"We're not sure yet the full extent of the damage," the president, a former oilman, said Monday after a closed-door meeting with his secretaries of energy and the interior.

After his meeting in Beaumont, Bush was to get an aerial tour of the Texas-Louisiana border area where Rita blew ashore, then meet with Louisiana officials in Lake Charles, La.

Bush said the government stands ready to release fuel from its emergency oil stockpile to alleviate high prices. And he suggested he would name a federal official to oversee the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast _ after local officials first produce a vision for their rebuilt communities.

He also asked Americans and federal workers to cut back on unnecessary travel to make up for fuel shortages caused by Hurricane Rita.

"If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees," Bush said. "We can encourage employees to car pool or use mass transit, and we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There's ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation."

Bush sent a memo to agency and department heads, saying the federal government must "lead by example and further contribute to the relief effort by reducing its own fuel use during this difficult time." He instructed them to report to him within 30 days, describing which steps they took to conserve.

The White House also will be looking at ways to conserve, press secretary Scott McClellan said, although that didn't include curtailing the president's travel plans. Tuesday marked the president's seventh trip to the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes in less than a month.

Bush returned Sunday from a three-day trip in which he stopped in four cities that have been a base for government response to the storm. As he has in most of his previous trips to the areas hit by the hurricanes, Bush spent most of the time in meetings with state and local officials _ many of them reporting by videoconference.

On Saturday, in a visit to the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., some of Bush's briefers were linked from the White House situation room steps from the Oval Office.

Still, McClellan said it is important that the president get a firsthand look at emergency operations and lift the spirits of workers there.

"I know the president's visit yesterday to the joint field office in Baton Rouge was very much appreciated," McClellan said. "You saw the enthusiasm from all those who have been working 24/7 to help the people of the region rebuild their lives and recover."

The president's entourage is designed for speed and the ultimate in security, not for fuel economy, so every movement he makes outside the White House consumes an enormous amount of fuel. The arrangements are dictated by the Secret Service, whose mission is to protect him.

McClellan wouldn't say whether the president was considering shortening his motorcade, which typically has well over a dozen vehicles, including several gas-guzzling vans, SUVs, Bush's limousine and an identical limo put in as a decoy.

The fuel consumption is even higher on Bush's cross-country travels, which include flights on Air Force One as well as movements by a group of helicopters for the president, his staff, Secret Service agents and press that accompany him wherever he goes. The Air Force recently estimated fuel costs for Air Force One have risen to $6,029 per hour, up from $3,974 an hour in the last budget year.

Sixteen Texas oil refineries remained shut down after the storm, and crews found significant damage to at least one in the Port Arthur area, said Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens.

The U.S. holds nearly 700 million barrels of oil for emergencies in four underground salt caverns along the Gulf of Mexico.

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