- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2000

Pressure is mounting on President Clinton to ease the spike in fuel prices in response to a Capitol Hill protest by 250 truckers Tuesday.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, will introduce, possibly today, a bill to suspend the 24-cent federal excise tax on diesel fuel.

His bill comes as members of Congress yesterday stepped up criticism of Mr. Clinton's energy policy and a taxpayers' group called for a 10-cent reduction in fuel taxes.

Chris Changery, Mr. Campbell's press secretary, said the bill is only a temporary solution to the 51 percent rise in diesel prices in the past year.

"[The senator] is concerned about our long-term energy policy and believes we need to look at increasing our domestic production so we're not beholden to foreign oil cartels," Mr. Changery said.

Mr. Campbell decided to introduce the bill after he spoke to the independent truckers who drove into the District of Columbia to protest the rising price of diesel fuel, Mr. Changery said. The truckers said high fuel costs are likely to raise the prices of goods they deliver and force them out of business.

The United States and other industrialized countries are eagerly waiting for the outcome of the March 27 meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which controls 43 percent of the world's oil market.

The 11 OPEC members will decide whether they should increase oil production, which they limited about a year ago to stabilize the declining market. Since then prices for fuel, which includes diesel, gasoline and heating oil, have climbed steadily.

OPEC's Persian Gulf oil ministers said yesterday they are leaning toward increasing production slightly, which eventually would bring prices down.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is meeting with OPEC officials to persuade them to boost production.

"There has been some indication countries are willing to increase production after the first quarter," said John Lichtblau, chairman of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation Inc. in New York. "If they are uncooperative, which is unlikely, [Mr. Clinton] will have to take action in conjunction with other countries. To be effective it must be on a global basis."

At a press briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said lowering the excise tax is not likely considering the tax, which is used mostly for highway funding, is set at a level both Congress and the president believe is appropriate.

However, a bill such as Mr. Campbell's may gain support from some members of Congress.

"I am very concerned about the implication for independent truckers, for farmers, for small businesses across this country," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Republican. "We have to look for ways with which to give them some relief."

A temporary moratorium on federal excise taxes for diesel fuel "would certainly provide them with some direct relief in a very expedited period of time," Mr. Daschle said.

But until he knows the cost and policy implications of such a plan, "it's too early to consider," the minority leader said.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said the truckers "are working very hard with a margin of profitability that's very low."

But he, as did other Republicans, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Clinton administration for having "no energy policy."

"We should not be defending Saudi Arabia if Saudi Arabia is going to be [hurting] us on oil," Mr. Gregg said.

He said Congress and the White House should temporarily lift the excise tax on diesel fuel.

The White House also should lift its ban on petroleum exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and "aggressively" intervene with OPEC, Mr. Gregg said.

The National Taxpayers Union said the government should not wait for OPEC. It has proposed an immediate and permanent 10-cent-per-gallon reduction in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes.

The 300,000-member organization has sent letters to Capitol Hill and the White House and is trying to enlist sponsors to introduce a bill in Congress.

"They don't have to wait and depend on the pricing cartel to decide what it's going to do," said spokesman Pete Sepp. "For once, Washington will be acting in favor of the taxpayers."

In a letter to the president, Rep. H. James Saxton, New Jersey Republican, urged him to declare a national emergency, allowing him to release the federal oil reserves.

"Homeowners must pay home heating oil bills which have in some cases more than doubled since last year, while merchants who deliver fuel face the blame from consumers," Mr. Saxton wrote. "This is unfair to both, especially when remedies are available to lower the price of home heating oil."

However, opening the oil reserves might compound the problem after alleviating it in the short-term, said Edward Maran, senior analyst for integrated oils at A.G. Edwards.

"It has the risk … that the OPEC countries could offset that increased supply by not increasing their production as much as they might otherwise have increased it," he said.

John Godfrey contributed to this article.

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