Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Elsewhere, surprise and shock at the ‘addicted to oil’ phrase

COMMENTARY | February 06, 2006

Bush astonished Europeans but his remarks in the State of the Union were widely seen as political and not indicative of any change in his administration’s energy policies. Here’s what some in the international press had to say.

By John Burke


Mouths gaped across Europe on February 1st as those scanning the headlines absorbed the shock of President Bush’s State of the Union confession that the United States is “Addicted to oil.”

For many years, Europeans have had trouble relating to what they see as an excess of American gasoline consumption.

The principal reason behind this opinion is the price of gas in Europe, which, mostly due to high taxes, consistently hovers around four times that in the United States, even after the spike in gas prices that the American population has recently experienced.

European cars are smaller and get much better mileage than their American counterparts.

Most European metropolitan areas have advanced systems of state-funded public transportation that the majority of their population is accustomed to and happy to use.

Those who don’t frequent public transportation prefer to walk, ride bicycles or gas-efficient mopeds.

Extended distances are covered by comprehensive nationalized rail-systems, relics of the post-war era.

Considering all this, European astonishment at the oil-bred Texan’s most memorable State of the Union 2006 sound bite is understandable.

But stereotypical visions of American highways and city streets clogged with gas-guzzling SUV’s, oversized sedans and the occasional Hummer were only temporarily compromised. Reading the fine print, it became clear that Bush’s speech was more political than realistic.

The French daily Le Monde (in French) wrote under the headline “Bush’s promises for ‘surpassing the oil-based economy’”:

“…The Department of Energy estimates that ethanol will only represent 4.3% of the American demand for fuel in 2025, amounting to 11.9 million barrels of the daily oil equivalent. And the mass production of “green fuel,” already having consequences in Europe and Latin America, poses problems when considering that agricultural lands are already limited and their needs enormous. The price of agricultural products such as sugar have already witnessed spikes instigated by fluctuations in the price of oil.

“The green promises of Bush, a man very tied to the American oil industry, have perplexed his opponents and defenders of the environment. For an America dependent on oil, Bush prescribed products of substitution, but did not call for a decline in consumption.”

The Spanish daily El Mundo (in Spanish):

“The spike in gas prices is a central factor in the declining image of Bush in the United States. The price of gas is close to it maximum historical levels and Exxon just announced record earnings of 10.7 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of 2005.”

BBC – “Bush in a lighter shade of green”

“…It is worth noting [that Bush] put energy in its place. He mentioned the need to detox from oil only as the sixth on a list of seven measures the United States had to take to stay "competitive."…“Nor are the words "greenhouse gases" (mentioned in the speech). The nearest he came to a climate reference was when he outlined one benefit of cleaner energy…

“And he did not mention climate change as the overriding concern behind energy policies...


The Economist always the pessimist (or realist, take your pick) with “The pusher-in-chief”:

“Look closely, though, and it turns out that this grand new plan to end oil addiction is really no such thing. Take, for a start, that objective of replacing three-quarters of Middle Eastern imports of oil by 2025. Because oil is a fungible, globally-traded commodity, it does not matter where imports come from. Even if America got all its oil from Canada, Venezuela and Nigeria, an oil shock in Saudi Arabia would send the price of every barrel of oil skyrocketing—even Alaskan barrels. Only abandoning foreign oil completely would free America from the prospect of an oil shock…

“In short, Mr Bush is still avoiding most of the regulations that might actually encourage the market to ditch dirty technologies in favour of clean ones. And he is still avoiding any attempt to make Americans pay the true cost of the energy they guzzle. Until that happens, he is firmly on the side of the pusher, not the addict.”

The Dutch Trouw de Verdieping:

“Bush has no intention of tackling America’s oil addiction” suggests that Bush is only talking about decreasing its dependence on Middle Eastern oil:

“Bush accuses Americans of being addicted to oil. But he won't do anything to help them kick the habit…

“From his speech it is clear that Bush is talking about independence from the Middle East, not America's energy addiction. The Americans are wholesale users. Nevertheless, they have started a love affair with the hybrid car, which can drive on gas as well as electricity. And in their all-terrain SUVs, which they adore, they want a more efficient engine. However, these are small changes; American oil consumption remains much higher than that of, for example, Europe. The Americans complain about the price of gasoline, but for them the cost is only 50 eurocents [per liter, or €1.75 per gallon]. The addiction could be reduced by imposing a considerable excise tax. But Bush won't do it.

“Furthermore, it is recommended that the energy addict participate in the global detoxification program: The Kyoto Treaty and the accompanying (scant) trade in emission rights. It appears that large American companies are starting to become aware of the necessity to participate in the emission trade. However, Bush doesn't want to hear about curtailing emissions. If Bush had touched upon any of these points in his speech, he would have delivered a welcome surprise. But no, Bush only wanted the Middle East to know that he would perhaps find his oil elsewhere.”

The Dutch NRC Handelsblad’s article: “Bush’s addicted nation will find withdrawal painful”:

“He called for research into different energy sources for cars; which is remarkable by American standards, because the average car owner in that country could - until recently- top off his gas tank for just a few dollars, unconcerned and enjoying relatively low fuel taxes. But the increases in oil and gas prices have changed all that. The rest of the world realized this before the United States. Therefore the American auto industry is having serious problems…

“That's what this is all about. American auto companies have insufficiently anticipated the increase in oil prices, which has led to a decrease in demand for gas guzzlers. And that is driven again by a short-term vision, which is generally prevalent in the American corporate culture. Grabbing quick (quarterly) profits is more important for a company and their stakeholders than creating a well-balanced long-term strategy…

“In his State of the Union, Bush singled out the need for research into hybrid and electric cars. The tragedy is that in this respect, the competition is way ahead of American companies…

“President Bush's calls for the car industry and American consumers to change course has  come years too late. The oil addiction has progressed to a point where kicking the habit is going to be very painful.”

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.