WASHINGTON - President Bush said Monday that the government is prepared to again tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to alleviate any new pain at the pump caused by Hurricane Rita's assault on the center of the nation's energy industry, and he asked Americans not to drive if they don't have to.
He also implied he will likely name a federal czar-like official to oversee the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. But he said that local officials must first produce a vision for how they want their rebuilt communities to look.
"I'm considering how best to balance the need for local vision and federal involvement," he said. "The vision and the element of reconstruction is just beginning and there may be a need for an interface with a particular person to help to make sure that the vision becomes reality."
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said Monday he had urged the president to place "a strong federal leader on the Katrina reconstruction effort" beyond the short-term relief effort. Such a "reconstruction czar" would also need to make sure there were no improprieties in awarding the lucrative reconstruction contracts, Vitter said.
"If the American people lose confidence in this effort, Louisiana and the victims of the storm are going to suffer, so we have to have those protections in place," Vitter said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show.
Because of worries that the storm could cause disruptions in getting gasoline to market, Bush urged motorists to cut out any unnecessary travel. He also said that federal employees should carpool or take mass transit to work and promised government officials would not take any trips they don't have to.
"We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy. People just need to recognize that these storms have caused disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful," he said. "If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darned sure makes sense for federal employees."
Despite the ban on unnecessary trips, Bush announced he was flying back to the hurricane-affected region on Tuesday, traveling to Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas - two of the harder-hit areas. He just concluded on Sunday a three-day hurricane trip - his sixth since Katrina hit a month ago - that took him to Colorado, two cities in Texas and Louisiana. During that trip, the president had no direct contact with areas or people affected by the storm, instead spending the entire weekend getting briefings on the storm from military and other federal officials.
With early indicators offering reason for optimism and a speedy recovery, Bush nonetheless warned Americans to expect some effect on energy supplies.
"A lot of our production comes from the Gulf and when you have a Hurricane Katrina followed by a Hurricane Rita, it's natural, unfortunately, that it's going to affect supplies," Bush said after a briefing at the Energy Department.
"It's important for our people to know that we understand the situation and we're willing to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to mitigate any shortfall in crude oil that could affect our consumers."
If oil is made available from the SPR reserves, it likely will be in the form of a loan to specific refineries, Energy Department officials said. That's is a much quicker process than a formal release and sale of oil that requires a go-ahead by other oil-consuming nations.
After Katrina, DOE approved loans of 13 million barrels of oil to refineries in Louisiana that could not get crude because of supply disruptions. DOE spokesman Craig Stevens said there has not been a request for more SPR oil at this time.
Oil prices slid Monday, as markets reacted to reports of relatively light damage to crucial U.S. petroleum processing zones in Texas.
But 16 Texas oil refineries remained shut down after the storm, and crews found significant damage to at least one in the Port Arthur area, said Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens.
Bush declined to shed more light on a politically sensitive idea he has been gentle pushing for more than a week - making the military the lead agency in charge in the event of a catastrophic natural disaster or terrorist attack. Congress would have to change law for that to happen.
The issue balances the need for an adequate response to disasters against trampling on states' rights.
Under existing law, a state's governor is chiefly responsible for disaster response, including control over the state's National Guard. In a crisis, the Guard would be working with active duty troops. The Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency response to requests to states, and if federal troops are brought in to help, they do so in support of FEMA.
"I want there to be robust discussion," Bush said.