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Bush defends ethanol emphasis

The corn biofuel isn't the main cause of high food prices, he says, and the U.S. should be 'growing energy.'

May 03, 2008|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, MO. — President Bush on Friday defended his emphasis on ethanol to help the nation meet its energy needs even though increased production of the corn-based biofuel has been blamed for contributing to sharp increases in food prices.

"As you know, I'm a ethanol person," he said, explaining his belief that it can help reduce U.S. dependence on oil. "It makes sense for America to be growing energy."

The president made his comments during a 20-minute speech and a rare, lengthy question-and-answer session with employees of a high-tech manufacturer.

On the day the government announced the loss of 20,000 payroll jobs in April, Bush said he recognized the nation was in a difficult period, "but this economy is going to come on."

He also chastised Congress for blocking his initiatives, including a stalled free trade agreement with Colombia, his plan to open Alaska lands and coastal waters to oil and gas exploration, and his proposal to overhaul the government's mortgage program.

He also shifted into a reflective mien, saying to a worker in Dallas with whom he was conversing in a demonstration of a videoconferencing system: "Tell everybody down there, in about 10 months, I'm coming home."

With that end of his administration in sight, the president's remarks brought into focus the flaring issues he faces: the economy, energy costs and, now, food prices.

The president for several years has been promoting the use of ethanol -- which is largely made from corn -- to alleviate the nation's shortage of domestically produced energy.

Critics have focused on the new demand for corn as a factor in driving up food prices.

Bush acknowledged that ethanol has contributed to higher food prices, but said it was not the main reason. He also listed increased energy costs, which affect transportation and fertilizer prices; drought and other weather-related problems; and increased demand stemming from greater prosperity in once-poor nations. He noted that the middle class in India has grown to 350 million -- more than the population of the United States.

Citing the four-month downward employment trend after 52 months of growth, Bush said Friday's report was "a sign that this economy is not as robust as any of us would like it." But, he said, the economic stimulus program, which is just now sending rebates to taxpayers, "hasn't really kicked in yet."

The president, who appeared to be surprised two months ago when told gasoline appeared headed for $4 a gallon, said, "I know you're having to pay more at the fuel pump than you want."

Blaming Congress for blocking efforts to allow Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling, for example, he said the nation needed to move away from "an energy policy that basically prohibits America from finding oil in our own land."

"If Congress is truly interested in helping relieve the price of gasoline," it would recognize that the country needed to drill for oil and gas in areas that have been off-limits largely for environmental reasons, and would encourage the construction of oil refineries.

Bush spoke at World Wide Technology Inc., which he had planned to visit in October. He postponed the visit when he flew instead to Southern California to view wildfire damage. The company, on the outskirts of St. Louis, provides information technology to the government and private industry, particularly in the telecommunications field.

In 2006, according to the White House, World Wide became the first minority-owned company with more than $2 billion in sales, and it reported sales of more than $2.5 billion last year. In seven years it has added more than 500 employees.

From Missouri, Bush headed to a weekend at his home in Crawford, Texas, where next weekend his daughter Jenna is getting married.

"I've got a lot on my mind, by the way," he said as he finished the speech and invited questions. "Getting ready to march down the aisle."

As for the approaching end of his presidency, he said that, having lived in the White House 7 1/2 years, he found "the furniture is interesting, but it is like a museum."

"It's been a fabulous experience," he said -- and singled out welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the White House last month -- but, he added: "I guess I'll go home and mow the lawn."

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james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

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