- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2000

The United States must break the OPEC cartel and contain the surging cost of fuel. It is now clear that these rises in energy costs could throw us into recession. The most important result of this election may turn out to be whether the United States continues the irrational Clinton-Gore policies that have reduced domestic production or whether we act decisively to tap our own large reserves in an environmentally safe manner.

Low energy prices have played a key role in furthering vigorous American productivity. On the other hand, high energy prices strike directly at American households and businesses. Gasoline prices are up 50 percent at the pump in the last 18 months, and the price per barrel of oil has tripled. This means, for example, that a family which previously paid $100 per month for its gasoline is now paying $150 per month. That family now has $50 less each month to spend in the marketplace. In addition, high energy prices are inflationary, making the products consumers buy more expensive. Further, many working Americans simply have less to spend.

I recently rode with a trucker in Alabama who told me that increased fuel costs were reducing his income $800 to $1,000 per month. On top of this, millions will face substantially higher heating costs this winter and the jump in natural gas prices will begin to drive up electricity costs. We cannot be so overconfident as to believe a serious economic downturn cannot result from sharp increases in energy prices.

Already economic indicators are not good. Corporate profits have been down for an extended period. The Labor Department just released its report showing a sharp 0.9 percent rise in producer prices for September alone. The study noted that while consumer spending remains high, much of that represents a big surge in spending for gasoline.

An index of personal financial prospects remained at a three- year low. The trap was sprung when the political leaders who control OPEC acted to drive up oil prices by reducing supplies in an artificial and monopolistic manner. Theirs was a political act, an interference in the free operation of the world oil market. And, it was dramatically effective because the policies of the Clinton-Gore administration have made the United States and the world vulnerable to their scheme.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has admitted that the administration was caught napping. But the administration's failure was more than a nap. Through its policies, the Clinton-Gore administration has for over seven years systematically reduced American energy productivity. By removing huge reserves of oil and gas from exploration and production, by slamming the door on nuclear power, and by excessively regulating production and refinery activity it has made us more dependent on the OPEC countries. The Clinton-Gore energy policy has in reality been solely an environmental policy. At every point, the administration has sided with the anti-growth, anti-production crowd even when environmental science was plainly against them. Even though we are in a time when oil and gas production is environmentally far safer than ever, American production has been reduced, world supplies have been reduced, and the world has become far more vulnerable to OPEC price manipulation.

To reverse this trend and to avoid an economic downturn this nation must have strong presidential leadership. We only need to remember how we escaped OPEC's clutches once before. In the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter and the world were vexed by OPEC price gouging, surging prices and shortages. He tried extensive conservation and fuel price controls. They did not work. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he courageously took off the controls, supported increased production, and carried out other policies that split OPEC and broke its effectiveness. He watched prices fall and they have remained at low levels since the early 1980s all to the tremendous benefit of the American consumer and worker.

Since our hopes for the future depend on a continued strong economy, skyrocketing oil prices may be the most important issue in this presidential campaign. Al Gore, in his heart, favors high prices. His book, "Earth in the Balance" says it and his record demonstrates it. Like his no-growth friends, he believes that high prices will make windmills, solar cells and other alternative sources more practical. But, these alternative energy sources cannot now meet our needs. Europe, even with its very high fuel taxes, has not been able to make them feasible.

The truth is that the OPEC politicians through manipulation have outsmarted and beaten our political leaders and beaten them soundly. In effect, OPEC has taxed American consumers 30 cents or more per gallon for their gasoline. Americans are paying a $5 tax to these oil rich nations every time they fill the car. We are not talking about a small issue here.

This creates a huge transfer of wealth that will have significant economic consequences. It can even cause a recession. Like Ronald Reagan, our next president must meet OPEC's political challenge with courage and a sustained policy if we are to avoid the economic consequences that are looming. Strong and effective action can increase our production while strengthening environmental safeguards and stopping this dangerous price spiral.

The American people will be making a fateful choice for their economic future when they vote on Nov. 7. If stated to them clearly, they will be more likely to choose the Bush-Cheney team, which fully understands this issue, than the Clinton-Gore team, with its consistent hostility to American energy production.

Rep. Peter Sessions is a Republican from Texas.

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