Oilman Plays Ozone Man

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

February 4, 2006

WASHINGTON

The Saudi ambassador summoned me to the embassy on Thursday, across the street from the Watergate.

He wanted to know if Americans were still addicted to oil.

I assured him we were.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, the charming new envoy from the royal family, was confused about W.'s suddenly morphing into Ozone Man, as Poppy Bush called Al Gore in '92. At the State of the Union address at the Capitol Tuesday night, the prince watched with chagrin as the ex-Texas oilman urged breaking our dependence by replacing most Mideast oil imports with wood chips and ethanol, a word usually heard only quadrennially when pols pander during the Iowa caucuses.

The prince, dressed in long white robe and checkered headdress, explained that last fall, when Condi Rice was in Jidda, the Saudis and the U.S. launched a "strategic dialogue," which included a promise by the Saudis to pump more oil. And now the president promises that the U.S. will need less oil.

Which way are the desert winds blowing?

I told the prince it was politics. W. is just mouthing conservation arguments to offset Americans' disgust at the obscene profits of Exxon Mobil and Halliburton, high gas prices and a conflict in Iraq that Rummy now gallingly dubs "the long war." Shouldn't it be "the wrong war"? (Halliburton never gets punished for bilking the Pentagon. The Army just awarded the company a $385 million contract to build detention centers for the Department of Homeland Security.)

Bush presidents, I told Prince Turki, sometimes say things without realizing that they are expected to act on their words. I expressed some doubt that the Duke of Halliburton, who dismissed conservation as a "personal virtue," would let W. go all "Earth in the Balance." It's not easy being green with smoggy Dick keeping a gimlet eye on you. The Saudi ambassador said he liked the vice president.

After some Turkish coffee, some reminiscences about the time the religious police in Saudi Arabia almost threw me in a dungeon, some chat about Iraq there are two possible outcomes, one good, one awful and some mutual puzzlement over the administration's lack of zeal in going after Osama bin Laden, we parted.

I needed no coat or sweater. It's so warm this winter, we'll soon have palm trees, the Saudi insignia, on the Potomac. A recent Washington Post story warned that global warming was progressing so fast that within decades, humans "may be helpless to slow or reverse the trend." Sounds like a plot for a thriller with Mr. Cheney as an enviro-villain, especially if you throw in that the Bush administration has been trying to gag the top NASA climate scientist from issuing Cassandra bleats about global warming.

Conservatives were so gobsmacked by W.'s promise to have the government drum up nonpetroleum energy options Robert Novak huffed that it not only violated G.O.P. free-market philosophy, but it also had "a lengthy pedigree of failure" that the vice president had to swiftly lumber onto conservative radio shows to praise drilling and gas guzzling.

Asked by Rush Limbaugh if drilling in Alaska was now out, Mr. Cheney said: "No, it's not off the table by any means. We'll keep pushing it because we think it makes eminent good sense."

Asked by Laura Ingraham if he agreed with Tom Friedman that the administration should impart pain with a gas tax, Mr. Cheney demurred, "Well, I don't agree with that." He said that he and W. are "big believers" in the market and letting the market work, and that people "make decisions for themselves in terms of what kind of vehicle they want to drive, and how often they want to fill up the tank, and from the perspective of individual American citizens, this notion that we have to 'impose pain,' some kind of government mandate, I think we would resist."

W.'s energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, clarified that the president's words shouldn't be taken literally. He said the aim of replacing 75 percent of Middle East oil imports with alternative fuels was "purely an example" of an action that could be taken.

Back in the Ford White House, when Vice President Nelson Rockefeller pushed a plan to have the government help develop alternative energy sources and reduce our dependence on oil and Saudi Arabia, Dick Cheney helped scuttle it.

If he hadn't, we would no longer be oil addicts. And Dick Cheney wouldn't have to go to the trouble of scuttling a new plan to have the government help develop alternative sources of energy and reduce our dependence on oil and Saudi Arabia.