By: - October 3, 2005 12:00 am

Four governors are giving up their gas-guzzling SUVs in a personalized bid to inspire citizens to conserve energy in the face of tighter fuel supplies after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

With gasoline hovering around $3 a gallon, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is trading his Ford Expedition for a more fuel-frugal vehicle. Govs. Tim Pawlenty (R) of Minnesota and John Baldacci (D) of Maine are giving up their Chevrolet Suburbans for rides that burn less gas. Gov. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico also has promised to park his Lincoln Navigator and drive something that gets better fuel mileage.

The change in gubernatorial driving habits is just one sign that conservation is becoming a buzzword in state capitals after the two Gulf Coast storms shut down oil rigs and refineries that provide nearly half of the nation’s gasoline and 19 percent of natural gas supplies.

More governors are asking agencies and residents to cut back on use of gasoline, heating oil and natural gas in a way that hasn’t been seen since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter asked Americans to turn down the winter thermostat, don sweaters and drive less.

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) has directed his Cabinet members to limit business-related travel to “essential or urgent” matters and give up their state-owned vehicles. New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) has directed state agencies to estimate their increased energy costs and do what they can to limit the impact. In July, even before the hurricanes, Lynch told state agencies to cut energy use by 10 percent.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) declared two “snow days” from school after the hurricane to save gasoline and stretch schools’ transportation budgets.  

Gov. Bush, who just declared his opposition to a congressional proposal for oil and gas drilling off Florida’s shores, has urged state residents not to panic and hoard gasoline in the face of tightening supplies and has a link to energy conservation tips on his Web site.  He announced he will be riding in a Ford Escape hybrid, which uses an electric motor to increase fuel efficiency.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) asked Delawareans to conserve energy, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) suggested her state’s residents carpool if possible, obey the speed limits and make sure that tires are properly inflated. Govs. Kenny Guinn (R) of Nevada and David Heineman (R) of Nebraska urged residents to conserve energy and not panic in the face of possible gasoline shortages.

Pawlenty of Minnesota is making a pitch for greater use of a renewable fuel — ethanol. He is planning to get a new Chevrolet Suburban powered by a gasoline blend that is 85 percent ethanol, which is distilled from corn. Last week, Minnesota became the first state to require that diesel fuel in the state contain 2 percent biodiesel, made from soybeans.

Recalling that Carter was mocked for his “sweater” speech, Chris Mooney, editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly at the University of Illinois Springfield, is skeptical that calls for conservation will reverse the country’s growing appetite for energy. “The long term forces that lead people to use energy as they do are so powerful that any government action is weak, at least in the short run,” he said.

While consumers are dismayed by record gasoline prices, so far only one state – Georgia – briefly made it cheaper for motorists to keep driving by temporarily suspending state gasoline taxes.  West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D), though, is promising to prevent an annual increase in his state’s gas tax.

Maine’s Baldacci so far has resisted suspending the state’s gas tax but has said he is setting an example for residents by riding in a sedan that gets 21 to 32 miles per gallon, instead of his usual Chevrolet Suburban that gets only 15 to 19 miles per gallon.

Most attention to high gas prices is focusing on whether suppliers are gouging consumers. Eight Democratic governors have asked President Bush to take action against skyrocketing gas prices, and 45 state attorneys general are making inquiries into potential price-gouging.

New Mexico’s Gov. Richardson, a former U.S. energy secretary, is calling a special session of the state Legislature to consider a law against price-gouging in addition to asking residents and state employees to conserve gasoline. Richardson has not yet decided what vehicle will replace his Lincoln Navigator, said his spokesman, Gilbert Gallegos.

  • Other states are taking a range of actions to encourage government agencies and citizens to cut their use of gasoline, natural gas and electricity. While some initiatives were launched before the hurricanes hit, they have taken on greater significance in the storms’ aftermath.
  • West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture is allowing some employees to work four 10-hour days, to save a day of driving.
    The California Public Utilities Commission has launched a program to give $2 billion in rebates to consumers who buy energy-efficient appliances, insulate their homes or take other measures to cut natural gas and electric use.
  • Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill to give tax breaks for hybrid cars or those that use alternative fuels, increase the number of state vehicles that run on alternative fuels and provide grants to local governments and school districts to add fuel-efficient cars to their fleets.
  • Wisconsin lawmakers are considering a requirement that all gasoline contain 10 percent alcohol by 2006.

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