President Bush, seeking to rev up support for his energy plan, praised domestic automakers Monday for building more "flexible fuel" vehicles capable of running on ethanol and biodiesel blends.
"That's a major technological breakthrough for the country," Bush said. "If you want to reduce gasoline usage like I believe we need to do so for national security reasons as well as for environmental concerns, the consumer has got to be in a position to make a rational choice."
Bush said he appreciated "that American automobile manufacturers recognize the reality of the world in which we live in and are using new technologies to use the consumers different options."
Bush met with General Motors Corp. chairman and chief executive Rick Wagoner, Ford Motor Co. chief executive Alan Mulally and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group chief executive Tom LaSorda. They discussed Bush's support for flex-fuel vehicles and his administration's proposal to reduce gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.
The three auto executives reiterated their commitment to double their production of flexible fuel vehicles to about 2 million a year by 2010.
Automakers said they could make half of their cars and trucks capable of running on alternative fuels by 2012 if there is enough availability and distribution of E85, an ethanol blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
"This makes a big difference," Wagoner said. "There's nothing that can be done that can reduce the curb of growth of imported oil, and actually turn it down, like using E85."
LaSorda said, "We think this is the answer for America to lower our dependence on foreign oil."
Environmental groups said the focus on ethanol blends would undermine attempts to push automakers to make more fuel efficient cars.
"Making our cars and light trucks go farther on a gallon of gas is the single biggest step we can take toward saving American families money at the pump, ending our dangerous addiction to oil, and curbing global warming," said Dan Becker, the Sierra Club's director of the global warming and energy program.
Only about 1,100 of the nation's 170,000 fueling stations offer E85. The auto leaders said the distribution system is critical to getting more vehicles running on alternatives.
Bush checked out some flex-fuel vehicles on the South Lawn following the meeting: GM's flex-fuel Chevrolet Impala running on E85; Ford's Edge HySeries with a plug-in hydrogen fuel cell; and DaimlerChrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel filled with B5, a biodiesel blend.
During one of the demonstrations, Bush stuck a yellow plug into a jack positioned near the front door of the Ford Edge. Mulally said a mix of alternative vehicles -- hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells and plug-ins -- "give us some great options to satisfy our need for flexibility as well as being good stewards of the environment."
Bush has sought higher fuel efficiency standards for cars; Wagoner said they spent "very little time" talking about gas mileage standards beyond the president's support for reforming the way standards are applied for passenger cars.