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A Prime-Time Greening

2 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

There’s nothing like a hostile Congress and a war gone sour to bring out the fence mender in a President. Tuesday’s State of the Union address was President George W. Bush’s most humble yet, filled with domestic goodies designed to appeal to a public fed up with bad news from Baghdad. Immigration, health care and education all got speech time, but most surprising was Bush’s new focus on energy and the environment. Is the Oil President really becoming the Eco-President? Opinions are mixed.

Bush’s biggest bid was to cut gasoline use 20% by 2017, in part by boosting mileage requirements for cars. The way to do this, the Administration says, is not to bump up all miles-per-gallon standards equally but rather to impose car-by-car rules, depending on the model. “Let experts consider the technology and the effect on safety and jobs,” James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, tells TIME.

To skeptics, this smells fishy. The vagaries of the 1975 mileage laws may prevent the Administration from raising standards this way without first getting approval from Congress. If Bush really wants to boost mileage, they say, he should just tell his Department of Transportation to do so across the board. “There’s a bit of slipperiness here,” says John deCicco, an automotive engineer and a senior fellow with Environmental Defense. “He doesn’t need Congress to get off the dime on this one.”

Perhaps more promising was Bush’s call to quintuple U.S. production of biofuels such as corn ethanol by 2017. The proposal is solid–to a point. You can’t use biofuels without flex-fuel vehicles, and currently there aren’t many out there. Plus, manufacturing ethanol is a messy process: smokestack pollution can offset what you save from tailpipes. An overall carbon cap would fix that, but even a greener Bush won’t go there. “You dirty up a clean fuel if you manufacture it dirtily,” says Sarah Hessenflow Harper, an Environmental Defense analyst and a former agricultural adviser for Senators Sam Brownback and Chuck Hagel.

Bush’s other proposals–more solar panels, windmills and nuclear plants–seemed to be rhetorical gauze. Still there were a lot of places a beleaguered President could have gone looking for friends. Greens are pleased that after six years, Bush is finally coming to them.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com