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For Immediate Release
May 5, 2008
Press Briefing by Scott Stanzel
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:39 P.M. EDT
MR. STANZEL: Good afternoon. I have one brief announcement and then I'll take your questions.
Mrs. Bush will make some comments on her humanitarian assistance and the current situation in Burma at 3:00 p.m. today, from this podium. And that will be an on-the-record, on-camera statement from her. So you'll have that to look forward to at 3:00 p.m.
With that I'll take your questions.
Q Scott, speaking of Burma, the cyclone death toll is apparently now about 4,000 people. Can you talk about what response the White House has to that and whether you're facing any resistance in getting aid or workers in?
MR. STANZEL: You will hear more from Mrs. Bush at 3:00 p.m., but we are obviously very concerned about the reports coming out of Burma and we mourn the loss of life. The U.S. Embassy there is in touch with Burmese authorities. The embassy was able to provide an initial package of aid and assistance that goes through the World Food Program, as well as other aid entities. And we're in the process of assessing what more we can do to help. I think you'll hear Mrs. Bush talk a little bit about that as well.
Q What's the extent of the aid so far that's --
MR. STANZEL: The embassy -- standard initial package that they can provide is $250,000. That has -- the embassy has the authority to do right away. So that is what was provided earlier today.
Q And one more on this. Is Mrs. Bush talking about this issue, about providing aid? Or is she talking about the concern she's had about human rights there?
MR. STANZEL: Well, as you know, she has -- had long been interested in what is going on in Burma, taken a particular interest in that and she's made statements on this issue before. So I expect she'll talk about the humanitarian aid that we're providing the people of Burma, but she will probably also touch on other issues there as well.
Q But it looks as though if the catastrophe is as bad as we understand it is, that this would be just a drop in the bucket. I mean, is there a chance of more help from the U.S.?
MR. STANZEL: Like I said, we're in the process of assessing what more we could provide. So we're just in the initial stages, obviously, of this tragedy, so it's something that we're taking a very close look at.
Q There's been a wire report that U.S. efforts to send in a response team, an emergency response team have been, you know, turned down by the Burmese, the authorities there. Is that correct?
MR. STANZEL: I'm not aware of that report, but like I said, our officials at the embassy are in touch with Burmese officials and we want to be as supportive to the humanitarian crisis as we can.
Q Scott, on the same subject, can you confirm that the President will sign tomorrow legislation to award Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal?
MR. STANZEL: Have no announcements on that matter at this point, but certainly we'll keep you posted. So no announcements at this point.
Q Oil is hitting $120 a barrel today -- a new record. Any response on that? And any further steps that the administration can take?
MR. STANZEL: Well, I think it's another example that it's important for the United States to become less dependent on foreign sources of energy. I understand some strife in Nigeria may be playing an impact on that. We have here in this nation resources that we are not utilizing. ANWR is an example, an issue that's been debated over the past couple of decades -- has been repeatedly blocked from exploration. If we had not blocked it, if we had moved forward with it in 1995, when it was rejected then, we might be getting a million barrels of oil out of that area in an environmentally friendly way. And that would make a big difference, when you stop and think that the United States is importing about 12 million barrels of oil per day.
So we have to do more on the domestic exploration front. We also have to do more in terms of building refineries. We haven't built refineries in about 30 years. We also have to do more in terms of weaning ourselves off of that foreign oil by expanding the use of alternative sources of fuel -- not only corn-based ethanol, but other types of ethanol that we're investing heavily in -- cellulosic ethanol as well as hydrogen battery -- or battery technology, hydrogen fuel cell technology.
There are a lot of different ways that we can reduce our dependence, but we have more to do. And it's just -- also I would point out that obviously the demand for oil is growing around the world. Many developing nations like India or China are having greatly increased demand, which obviously is having an impact on price.
Q The President will be in Saudi Arabia next week. Will he be, again, urging King Abdallah to increase output there and to get OPEC to do the same?
MR. STANZEL: I think whenever the President has discussions with leaders in the region he talks about the impact that high oil prices do have on our economy and the impact that that then has on the world economy. So I think you can expect the President to make those concerns very clear.
Q But none of this offers any short-term relief, obviously. The solutions you're talking about are years down the road, literally.
MR. STANZEL: Right, and many years ago we could have had a more forward-leaning energy policy, and that's what we're talking about. If we don't want to go from short-term band-aid to short-term band-aid to short-term crisis to short-term crisis again and again and again, leaders in Congress should start to look forward and think about our long-term energy strategy. And it's our contention that that hasn't been the case in the last 20 years.
The President has advocated these things over the course of his two terms in office. We have done some things -- he signed a couple energy bills that have had a real impact in increasing CAFE standards or expanding the use of alternative fuels. But there's more that we can do so we don't find ourselves in this situation repeatedly.
Q That may all be true, but voters are going to be asking, what have you done for me, when they go to the polls.
MR. STANZEL: And voters should understand that the President would like us to do a number of different things, whereas leaders in Congress have continually rejected the idea of expanding exploration, whether it's ANWR or the Outer Continental Shelf; they continually stood in the way of those things, which makes us more dependent on foreign sources of energy.
Q So it wasn't his fault?
MR. STANZEL: Well, it's a problem that's gone back many years. But he's put in place -- going back to the beginning days of his administration -- an energy policy that takes into account all of these things.
Q Scott, on the Outer Continental Shelf off of Florida we have some of the largest oil deposits and natural gas deposits in the world. And back in 2001 there was some kind of a deal not to drill off of Florida. Does the President now think that we should be even drilling off the coast of Florida?
MR. STANZEL: I haven't talked with him specifically about locations, where that would occur, but we do have a tremendous amount of resources on the Outer Continental Shelf around -- near various states. And they are doing some of that exploration in the Gulf -- that's important, we think that we can do more of that. The largest single place that we could explore is ANWR; there's no disputing that. That is an area about the size of South Carolina that we would have a footprint about the size of Dulles Airport on if we were to explore it.
So we think that that should go forward. And we think that standing in the way of that just creates further problems down the road.
Q Scott, is the White House aware of reports from the region that Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz may be on his deathbed and under the care of doctors in Geneva, Switzerland right now, dying of cancer? Are you aware of those reports? Have you been in touch with the Saudis about it? Any concerns about the future in Saudi Arabia with his passing, if he does?
MR. STANZEL: I have not seen those reports. I see you reading your Blackberry there, so I don't know -- I have not heard those. But we can take that question and get back to you.
Q A second question then, if you have anything on this, the reports that the United States supplied intelligence to Iraq -- based on American interrogations that show that Hezbollah has been training Iraqi militia members inside of Iran, in camps near Tehran -- can you confirm that? And what are the U.S. concerns about that?
MR. STANZEL: Well, we have long expressed our concerns about the role that Iran is playing in Iraq, whether it's funding Militias, whether it's training militias, supplying weaponry to them. General Petraeus discussed this in his testimony last month. Iranian efforts to support those special groups are something that the Iraqis want to stop. That's why Prime Minister Maliki last week sent a delegation there to talk with Iranian officials about that activity and how disruptive it is to the prospects for democracy in Iraq. So that's something that both we, as coalition partners with Iraq, want to see stopped.
Q So you can confirm that the U.S. did gather this intelligence and we passed on --
MR. STANZEL: I can't speak to the specific intelligence, but you should know that obviously we work very closely with the Iraqis about the security situation in their country and are in regular communication with them about what we're learning.
Q Two quick questions, Scott. Thank you. One, need some clarification -- there is some problems or -- in the Indian parliament among the especially left politicians about President Bush last week comments on the hunger around the globe, blaming India. They said that he said that because of the over 300 million Indian middle class is more than the U.S., and they are eating more or they're doing better, and that's why the food prices are rising around the globe. Can you clarify? Because there is a big thing going on in India.
MR. STANZEL: Yes, I can certainly clarify that. We think it is a good thing that countries are developing, that more and more people have higher and higher standards of living. The point I think that was to be made is that as you increase your standard of living, the food that you eat -- it can venture more into meats that require more commodities to feed the livestock, which uses more of those commodities, whether it's corn or wheat or other commodities, and it drives up the price. So that is just a function of how those food prices that we've seen spike in the -- around the world.
I would say one thing on this topic. There's been a lot of discussion about biofuels and the impact that biofuels have on increased food prices around the world. As you'll see here, over the last year, food prices have increased about 43 percent around the world. Of that portion, an increase in the biofuel production, about 1.5 percent of that, is due to an increase in biofuel production. The other majority, vast majority of that, is due to things like increased demand, like you were talking about, or increased energy prices, or weather-related problems in Australia or in Eastern Europe -- problems with wheat production, as an example -- that's driving up the price of those commodities.
So the fact that we are making more biofuels so we reduce our dependence on foreign energy has an impact, but we believe it is a small impact.
Q I'm sorry -- how do you get those figures, and what would be the effect of complying with the law that mandates we increase ethanol production five times over the next, what, 10-15 years?
MR. STANZEL: The actual mandate this year is for about 9 billion gallons of ethanol production. But what we're seeing, because of those high energy prices that Matt talked about, is that we're actually going to produce more ethanol because there is a great demand for it. When you have high oil prices, obviously the market is going to respond with an alternative product. So it's superseding the mandate already because of those high oil prices.
So that is something that we think, because of those high oil prices, isn't really having a big impact. On the increase of the mandate, however, we're investing quite a bit in cellulosic technology because we want to get beyond using corn, as an example, for those biofuels; want to get to -- you've heard the President say it many times -- using switchgrass or wood chips or other non-food-related commodities that can help with that production. So we're investing a tremendous amount in that.
Q We don't have a functioning cellulosic refinery yet, not a commercial one. And you've got a law that says we're supposed to increase ethanol production five times over the next, what, seven years, is it?
MR. STANZEL: It's until 2022, actually. So it's quite a ways down the road. We believe --
Q Is it your anticipation that you're going to meet that mandate with cellulosic ethanol production, or do you feel that it's going to have substantially more impact on food prices than it's having now?
MR. STANZEL: No, we think the impact -- actually, it's the view of the economic advisors that the impact of biofuel production on food price will diminish over time. That is their view. The law that the President signed into -- or the bill that the President signed into law in December regarding energy actually puts a cap on the total amount, at 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol that you could -- that we can produce, and the rest of it has to come from that cellulosic --
Q About 50 percent more than we're doing now, right?
MR. STANZEL: Right. But we also think that the impact of that biofuel production will diminish over time, because obviously we've had -- weather-related issues around the world have had a huge impact on this. But we think -- the President, right after the State of the Union in 2007, visited a couple facilities, one I believe in Delaware, one in North Carolina, about -- that were working on the cellulosic technology. And we think that that is where obviously a lot of investment money is going to go there at a time when you have $120-a-barrel oil prices.
Q Those are not commercial facilities. Those are --
MR. STANZEL: No -- they're trying to get there, though. And we believe in the ingenuity of the American people to get there.
Q Second, if I may, please, Scott. Last week, Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, was speaking at the National Press Club, and he said that his state had over 100,000 jobs and making people to come there, but also, at the same time, he said, that why people are not -- their standard is not going up, or things are in trouble still because of the red tape must be cut by the federal government here, by the Congress. Many people outside the U.S. think that in the richest country like in the U.S. how can things go wrong like this, still not has been built up like Louisiana or New Orleans.
MR. STANZEL: Well, we've invested over -- I think with tax credits and other issues, we're up to $134 billion in resources from the federal government to rebuild along the Gulf Coast. Certainly going there for the North American Leaders' Summit, the President was sending a message that we support the people there in their rebuilding effort.
In terms of the economy, we've had some mixed data that has come out recently. Last week we saw the information about GDP growth being 0.6 percent. That is positive, but it's not positive enough, in our view. We've had job numbers that we're not satisfied with. That's why the economic stimulus package is going into effect. We sort of forecast that slowdown in the economy and we're concerned about that. So we continue to monitor those issues, but certainly we support the people of the Gulf Coast.
Q Yes, with the price of gas continuing to rise, where is the President now on the gas tax holiday?
MR. STANZEL: Well, I think you would have to -- we'll have to take a look at if Congress does decide to do something on that. I've seen a lot of headlines in the last day or so that call into question whether or not they would move forward on that idea.
Q But in principle is it something that the President supports?
MR. STANZEL: You heard the President last week. He talked about the fact that he'll look at any ideas that Congress puts forward, but we believe that putting in place some of these other measures will get us to a better place in the future.
Q Thank you, Scott. Two questions. First, in New Hampshire, a 49-year-old computer programmer has filed a lawsuit claiming that John McCain is "not a natural-born citizen" because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936. And my question: The President agrees with Democrat Senators Patrick Leahy and Claire McCaskill in their supporting Senator McCain's legal right to run for President, doesn't he?
MR. STANZEL: I think he believes that Senator McCain does have the right to run for President, yes.
Q Good, thank you.
MR. STANZEL: He'll be here in about 10 months.
Q Yes. Oh, thank you, yes. (Laughter.) The Baltimore Examiner reports that while West Point graduates are being allowed to play pro football immediately, the Naval Academy's athletic director has stated this is not allowed in the Naval and Air Force Academies. And since the Commander-in-Chief so recently and eloquently hosted the Navy team here at the White House, he will end this favoritism, won't he?
MR. STANZEL: I don't know that the President has weighed in on the eligibility of college athletes to play in the NFL, so I'm not sure that he -- that is something that he has occupied his time with.
Q Thank you. Scott, many Americans are saying that there's a lot of talk right now about short-term/long-term fixes, but they need something immediately, right now. We're facing $120 a barrel for oil now. A lot of people are concerned that -- what's not being looked at by the President. He's saying he'll look at every option -- it's price gouging. You've got Exxon, you've got Chevron making billions upon billions of dollars in profit when the American public is having problems going to the pump with the gas prices. Why not deal with that issue of price gouging?
MR. STANZEL: Well, there's a structure in place to have those issues examined and that is something that we always have in place. And so if you're talking about taxing energy-producing companies, the windfall profits tax is something that's being considered on Capitol Hill. That, as Dana mentioned last week, was an abject failure when it was tried during the Carter administration. At a time when you have high prices, it makes absolutely zero sense to tax the people producing that energy.
Q But is it fair for --
MR. STANZEL: One would think that that -- those costs are simply going to be passed along to the consumer.
Q But there have been questions of fairness. Is it fair, during the times of increased prices for a barrel of oil, for these energy companies to be making billions upon billions of dollars in profits? Is it fair?
MR. STANZEL: So you're talking about a structure whereby the federal government decides on what profits companies can make?
Q No, no, no. There is a concern -- the American public is concerned about the fact that people are making money off of them in time that they're calling a crisis, to say that we need it for the future when indeed they need to keep the money in their pocket right now.
MR. STANZEL: Like I said, April, there is a process in place to look at issues of price gouging and that sort of thing --
Q Well, is the process being reviewed right now? That's what --
MR. STANZEL: You should talk to the FTC. You should talk to the entities that would --
Q Why can't the administration push it forward for it to be looked at? Is it that you're saying --
MR. STANZEL: We think the energy policy -- the solutions that we're seeing from Congress right now are -- they are band-aids, at best, and counter-productive --
Q Well, what is the administration --
MR. STANZEL: I'm sorry?
Q I'm saying -- I don't think you understand -- I don't think --
MR. STANZEL: I couldn't hear you --
Q Yes, I know, I don't think you understand what I'm saying.
MR. STANZEL: No, I do. I understand it fully, April. I do understand it. And all of those issues -- there's a process in place by looking at -- looking at those issues. What we need, however, is a real energy policy that Democrats won't stand in the way of. And they have done so for more than a decade.
Q But is there something -- I mean, I hear what you're saying, but from what I'm getting -- I just, in front of the White House, just talk to average, everyday people. One person told me this is obscene and obsessive. People are hurting when they go to the pump. They don't want to hear partisan politics. They want to hear someone unifying, cutting the red tape and getting to the heart of the matter. Can this administration do something about the fact that --
MR. STANZEL: The President said the other day that there's no magic wand. If he could -- if there was a magic wand, he would wave it and these prices would drop. But that's not the case. We are dealing with a situation where we've had for many years an energy policy that hasn't served the long-term needs of this country. So that's the situation we find ourselves in.
In terms of the economic relief that we can provide to Americans, those checks are going out now -- $600; $1,200 for a couple; family of four, $1,800. That's going to make a difference for people. That money will make a difference in their pockets. We need to reduce those food prices. We need to reduce those energy prices. But all of that goes to a long-term policy, not short-term fixes.
Q Thanks, Scott.
END 1:01 P.M. EDT