updated 2/8/2006 9:43:19 AM ET 2006-02-08T14:43:19

As gasoline and winter heating costs soar, the Bush administration’s short-term answer has been conservation, even unveiling a cartoon mascot dubbed “Energy Hog” to bring home the case for lowering thermostats.

But consumer and energy efficiency advocates are complaining that the president’s budget, sent to Congress this week, goes the other direction, cutting energy conservation programs — including two the administration has touted repeatedly.

It’s “a remarkable about-face” by the administration “after spending several months extolling the potential for energy efficiency,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a private advocacy group that has worked with the Energy Department on promoting conservation.

Particularly perplexing to energy conservation advocates are the administration’s proposal to cut back on the government’s “Energy Star” program that promotes energy-efficient products — from appliances to entire houses — and to slash funding for a program that helps poor people weatherize their homes.

The two programs have been cited repeatedly by the White House and the Energy Department as among the most cost effective ways to save energy. Yet the administration wants to cut funding for the Energy Star program, most of which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, by 9 percent from this year’s $55.9 million, and roll back the weatherization program by nearly a third from $243 million to $164.2 million.

Overall, core funding for energy programs at the Energy Department would decline by more than $100 million, or about 18 percent from spending this year, according to an analysis by the American Council on Energy-Efficient Economy.

“The budget slashes the energy efficiency programs that are the first step toward the president’s goal of curing America’s oil addiction,” said ACEEE policy director Bill Prindle, alluding to President Bush’s declaration that the country must rid itself of its addiction to oil.

DOE spokesman Craig Stevens said the cuts reflect “the tough choices” when crafting a budget. “We are focusing on renewable technologies and ... diversity of supply,” he said.

Stevens said the department remains committed to the weatherization program that, even with the budget cuts, will help 64,000 homeowners make energy efficiency improvements next year. But that’s 32,000 fewer households than will be helped this year, he acknowledged.

Other cuts in energy efficiency efforts range from programs to help states develop conservation-minded building codes and help small manufacturers save energy.

Many of these programs are relatively small in terms of cost, but have huge potential payoffs in energy savings, said Callahan of the Alliance to Save Energy.

She cited $4.5 million the government is spending this year to train and assist in the development of more energy efficient building codes for new homes and commercial buildings.

“They zeroed it out,” said Callahan of the president’s budget for the fiscal year beginning in October. “Buildings use 39 percent of the total energy used in the country. There are 1.5 million new homes built. ... It’s important that we have these codes in place and enforced and understood.”

The administration has endorsed new tax credits up to a total of $500 for home energy efficiency improvements and will pursue new appliance efficiency standards. Both are mandated by the energy legislation Congress passed last summer.

But Callahan said the budget makes little attempt to fund some of the more ambitious energy efficiency programs authorized — but not funded — by the new law.

Among them: a program to help states upgrade building codes, another to launch a $90 million a year “public education and outreach” campaign on energy conservation, and a more aggressive goal of reducing the government’s own energy use.

Stevens said the department has earmarked $3.5 million for energy efficiency education and outreach.

But a DOE program to cut federal agencies’ energy use would be cut from $17 million this fiscal year to $14.9 million in the next year, said Callahan.

“This is after the energy secretary and the president have been telling Americans they need to conserve. But there aren’t any funds to educate people how and why they should do it.”

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