WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With U.S. heating bills expected to hit record highs this winter, the Bush administration on Monday dusted off mostly old energy conservation tips and urged consumers to add home insulation and turn down thermostats.
Critics said the conservation tips were nothing new and the administration was only trying to protect itself from consumer complaints this winter over high utility bills.
Americans face higher heating fuel bills this winter due in part to crippled oil refineries, natural gas processing plants and energy producing platforms in the Gulf of Mexico from
Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
In the Midwest, the region most dependent on natural gas for heating, winter bills will jump by 71 percent from last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Nationally, heating oil expenses will rise 34 percent and electricity bills 11 percent, the EIA recently forecast.
Energy Secretary Sam Bodman and the Alliance to Save Energy consumer group on Monday launched what was billed as a major campaign to encourage Americans to cut energy use this winter.
To help sell the conservation campaign, the administration will use its new cartoon figure, the Energy Hog, to warn consumers about wasting energy. Hoping to have the same impact as Smokey Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog, the government's Energy Hog -- a pig wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket -- will soon appear in magazines and on billboards.
Public service announcements sent to 4,500 radio stations say that consumers "have the power" to manage their energy bills and ease "the pinch of high energy prices." The radio spots address home heating, gasoline and appliances.
One radio commercial encourages consumers to install sufficient insulation in their homes and use a programmable thermostat to lower winter heating bills. Another focuses on automobile maintenance and driving tips in order to get the most out of every gallon of gas, such as reducing driving speeds.
"This effort will provide consumers, industry and federal agencies with a variety of energy savings ideas, which if done properly, can yield significant savings," Bodman said.
He refused to estimate how much energy could be saved.
President George W. Bush last week urged Americans to avoid nonessential car trips and promised to impose the same guideline for federal workers.
Democrats in their weekly radio address Saturday criticized Bush for not taking significant steps to cut U.S. energy use.
"High fuel costs are costing people their jobs, their pensions and their businesses," said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington. Energy conservation "must be more than a convenient slogan," she said.
Environmental groups, many Democrats and some Republicans have long insisted that meaningful cuts in U.S. energy use can only come through a big boost in vehicle mileage standards, which is opposed by the White House.
Mark Cooper, research director at the Consumer Federation of America, said the administration offered no new ideas to save energy and overlooked several big ones, such as much higher mileage requirements for vehicles and issuing stronger energy efficiency standards for appliances and products.
"The fact that they're pushing conservation and have failed to promote efficiency shows just how AWOL they have been on the energy policy beat," he said. "They're warning Americans (about this winter) because they know the inevitable backlash to the rising prices."
Bodman said the administration is ready this winter, if necessary, to tap in to the government's emergency stockpiles of crude oil and heating oil.
To help businesses, the Energy Department will send experts to the 200 U.S. plants that use the most energy to try to find ways to be more energy-efficient, he said.
For its part, the Alliance group developed a database of state and local tax incentives and programs that support and encourage energy efficiency.
On Wednesday, the Bush administration will launch a national effort to persuade consumers to switch to light bulbs that use less electricity. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. residential electricity demand is for lighting.
For all of 2005, U.S. energy expenditures are expected to rise to $1.08 trillion, up 24 percent from last year, according to the U.S. government. That represents 8.7 percent of U.S. annual gross domestic product, the biggest share of GDP since 1985.
However, that estimate does not reflect the full impact of Hurricane Rita, which hit the Texas-Louisiana border on Sept. 24 and will push total energy costs even higher for 2005.
*TAKE A LOOK-Energy recovers from hurricanes [ID:nN12489571]
*Alliance to Save Energy site at www.ase.org
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