High gas prices, over $2 a gallon nationwide, could continue to erode the president's popularity.
CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) -- President Bush pressed Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah on Monday to help curb skyrocketing oil prices that are hurting American families and businesses, and a top adviser said a Saudi plan to increase production would have an impact.
"When you increase the capacity by a significant amount, which they are talking about, that can't help but have a positive downward effect on prices," said Bush's national security adviser, Steve Hadley.
As Bush and Abdullah met for several hours at the president's ranch, the Saudis presented a plan -- outlined last week in a speech by Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi -- to increase production capacity to 12.5 million barrels per day by 2009 from the current 11 million limit.
If necessary, Saudi Arabia would eventually develop a capacity of 15 million barrels per day. The kingdom now pumps about 9.5 million barrels daily.
Also on the agenda
The talks also included Middle East peace initiatives, the pace of democratic change in the desert kingdom and counterterror efforts. But the White House, with gasoline prices averaging more than $2.20 a gallon nationwide and dampening the president's popularity, was eager to telegraph any results that could help ease the pain at the pump.
"Clearly the news that came out of the meeting today ought to be good news for the markets," Hadley said. "But, as you know, these markets are complicated business."
Adel Al-Jubeir, Abdullah's foreign affairs adviser, said Saudi leaders had little more to offer Bush in the meeting on production beyond the plan outlined by Naimi. He said the high prices are instead the result of a lack of adequate refining capacity in the United States and elsewhere.
"Our policy is to ensure that the markets are adequately supplied. We have been doing so in the past. We are doing so now. We will do so in the future," he said. "The issue is not really one of crude oil production. The issue is one of product -- refining and distribution."
Hadley said there was "a good exchange of views" between Bush and Abdullah on the Saudis questions about U.S. refining capacity.
Ahead of the meeting, Bush said he would discuss with Abdullah the need to "make sure that the price is reasonable."
Bush said he would appeal to Abdullah's self-interest, telling him that persistent high crude prices could erode the long-term market for Saudi Arabia's biggest source of revenue. He said he would urge Saudi Arabia to make the necessary investment to increase its production capacity, especially in light of the fast-growing, energy-gobbling markets in China and India.
"A high oil price will damage markets, and he knows that. I look forward to talking to him about that," the president said.
Support energy plan
The president then pivoted to the domestic scene, prodding the Senate to follow the House and pass the comprehensive energy strategy he supports. "Now is the time for something to happen," Bush said.
Abdullah and his small entourage were nearly a half-hour late. Bush gave Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler a warm embrace and a kiss on both cheeks in welcome. Bush kept a firm, guiding grip on his guest's hand as they walked up the path, past a field of bluebonnets that the president took care to point out, to a new office building on a corner of the sprawling ranch.
Bush's goal of spreading democracy across the Arab world faces a difficult test in Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally ruled by a monarchy. Traditionally Bush holds news conferences with visiting foreign leaders, but there was none during this visit because Abdullah rarely talks with the media. The president got around that by emerging from the building well before Abdullah's arrival and engaging in what was made to appear to be an impromptu exchange with reporters gathered there.
Monday's meeting also marked another step in a quickening pace of U.S. involvement in the Mideast. Two weeks ago Bush met at the ranch with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and said Israel should abandon plans for new construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. The Saudis believe the administration's strong support for Israel harms prospects for Middle East peace.
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