News outlets ignored Bush flip-flop on oil reserves

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

In reporting on President Bush's announcement that he would suspend fuel deposits into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an effort to reduce rising gasoline prices, numerous news outlets failed to note that Bush had previously criticized both the Clinton administration and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) for proposing to use the reserve to lower prices.

In reporting on President Bush's April 25 announcement that he would suspend deposits into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) in an effort to reduce rising gasoline prices, numerous news outlets failed to note that Bush had previously criticized both the Clinton administration and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) for proposing to use the reserve to lower prices.

On April 25, Bush announced his decision to suspend deposits to the SPR under a three-part plan purportedly intended to reduce gas prices in the short term. His plan also entailed limiting oil company tax breaks and promoting fuel efficiency. From Bush's speech before the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington, D.C.:

BUSH: One way to ease price is to increase supply. One immediate way we can signal to people we're serious about increasing supply is to stop making purchases or deposits to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for a short period of time.

I've directed the Department of Energy to defer filling the reserve this summer. Our Strategic Reserve is sufficiently large enough to guard against any major supply disruption over the next few months. So by deferring deposits until the fall, we'll leave a little more oil on the market. Every little bit helps.

Following Bush's announcement, most news reports noted experts' opinion that his plan to halt SPR deposits would amount to little more than a "drop in the bucket" in terms of its effect on gas prices. But only a few outlets also pointed out that, in taking this step, Bush contradicted his past opposition to using the reserve to drive down prices.

Indeed, as both The Washington Post and the Associated Press reported on April 26, during his 2004 re-election campaign, Bush denounced then-presidential candidate Kerry's proposal to relieve gas prices by diverting deposits to the SPR. At the time, Bush asserted that the reserve was to be utilized only in the case of "major disruptions of energy supplies":

BUSH: [W]e will not play politics with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That petroleum reserve is in place in case of major disruptions of energy supplies to the United States. The idea of emptying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve plays -- would put America in a dangerous position in the war on terror. We're at war. We face a tough and determined enemy on all fronts. And we must not put ourselves in a worse position in this war. And playing politics with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would do just that.

An April 26 Chicago Tribune article further contrasted Bush's decision to suspend the SPR deposits with his criticism -- made during his 2000 presidential campaign -- of the Clinton administration's decision to tap into the reserve. On September 22, 2000, at the urging of presidential candidate and then-vice president Al Gore, Clinton authorized the release of 30 million barrels of oil from the SPR to "increase supply and help consumers make it through the cold winter." In a statement made a day earlier in response to Gore's recommendation, Bush described as "bad public policy" the idea of taking such steps "in response to public outcry." As with his 2004 rebuke of Kerry's proposal, Bush invoked the issue of national security and noted that the reserve was intended "for a sudden disruption of our energy supply":

BUSH: Today, my opponent, in response to public outcry, proposed that our nation tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That's bad public policy.

The Strategic Reserve is an insurance policy meant for a sudden disruption of our energy supply or for war. Strategic Reserve should not be used as an attempt to drive down oil prices right before an election. It should not be used for short-term political gain at the cost of long-term national security.

By contrast to the Post, Tribune, and AP, numerous other news outlets reported Bush's plan without pointing out his prior opposition to such a move. These included April 26 articles by New York Times reporter David E. Sanger, Los Angeles Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and Richard Simon, and USA Today reporter David Jackson.

CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux's April 25 report on White House plans to address high gas prices also failed to contrast Bush's decision to suspend SPR deposits with his previous criticism of similar Democratic proposals. Malveaux's taped report appeared on Lou Dobbs Tonight, The Situation Room, Paula Zahn Now, and Anderson Cooper 360.

Fox News chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron went a step further. Discussing the president's plan on the April 25 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Cameron not only failed to inform viewers of Bush's past statements on the appropriate use of the reserve, he ignored experts' criticism of the plan as largely symbolic.

From the April 25 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: President Bush today announced a plan to tackle another major concern for middle-class Americans, the soaring price of gasoline. His plan includes a temporary halt of oil deliveries to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but it is early and certainly unclear to decide whether the president's initiative will do anything to stop what is part of now a war on our middle class.

[...]

MALVEAUX: Second, Mr. Bush pledged to boost the supply of U.S. crude oil and gasoline by temporarily suspending deposits into the country's strategic oil reserve.

BUSH [video clip]: So by deferring deposits until the fall, we'll leave a little more oil on the market. Every little bit helps.

MALVEAUX: But energy analysts say that's not likely to lower gas prices.

DANIEL LASHOFF (Natural Resources Defense Council) [video clip]: It is something within the president's jurisdiction, and I think it's largely symbolic.

From the April 25 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

CAMERON: To boost the U.S. fuel supply, Mr. Bush directed the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend certain rules for cleaner but more expensive blends of gasoline during the summer months. He also temporarily halted shipments of oil to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve so that oil can supply the market now.

BUSH: By deferring deposits until the fall, we'll leave a little more oil on the market. Every little bit helps.

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