President Bush’s State of the Union address Tuesday night was notable more for what it didn’t say on energy policy — it failed to make any reference to domestic oil and natural gas drilling.

Bush, a former oilman from Texas, sidestepped the controversial issues of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and opening up more of the federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to exploration and production, and instead focused the nation’s attention on alternative energy fuel development.

The nearly hour-long speech was a major departure for Bush, who for much of his presidency has advocated increasing oil and gas production on public lands, and favored tax breaks for producers to spur more drilling.

“America is addicted to oil,” Bush declared, saying that the nation should “move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.” With greater reliance on alternative fuels, he noted, the U.S. could replace more than 75% of its oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

“The best way to break this addiction is through technology,” the president said. He announced an “Advanced Energy Initiative” that calls for a 22% increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy to “change how we power our homes and offices,” as well as to put more focus on low-emission vehicles in the years ahead.

Bush said the government plans to invest more in emission-free coal-powered plants, solar and wind technology, nuclear energy, hybrid and electric vehicles, and hydrogen-fueled vehicles. It also will allocate additional research dollars to “cutting-edge methods” for producing ethanol not just from corn, but from agricultural waste, such as wood chips, switch grass and stalks, he noted. “Our goal is to make this new kind of [cellulosic] ethanol practical and competitive within six years.”

While the president offered solutions that could reduce the country’s energy consumption a decade or more into the future, he proposed nothing to help customers deal with the major run-up in natural gas and heating fuel prices in the here and now.

“We are disappointed that there was no acknowledgement that we have a natural gas crisis that needs urgent action right now,” said Paul Cicio, president of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America. “We have a very serious situation and leadership is needed right now by Congress and the administration to act with urgency to increase domestic supply of natural gas…The market needs confidence that additional near-term supplies are on the way.”

The president’s decision to steer clear of ANWR and the OCS “was not much of a surprise, as this theme is one that the White House seems quite happy to leave to Congress’ initiative,” said energy analyst Christine Tezak of the Stanford Washington Research Group. Bush opted instead to emphasize “the same tired refrain of putting ethanol in gasoline tanks,” while “resolving domestic oil and natural gas access has been left squarely in Congress’ lap,” she noted.

“This is a sharp departure from past speeches. Traditionalists may be disappointed that oil and gas weren’t the centerpieces of his energy remarks, but the president is absolutely right to map out an expanded strategy in alternative energy,” said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“The president recognizes that ingenuity and technology are our best answer to the voracious global appetite for carbon fuels. However, in order to achieve his goal of reducing our reliance on Middle East oil by 75% in the next 20 years, I do think we have to focus our ingenuity on extracting oil from our own abundant resources such as oil shale,” he said.

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