- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

HOLLYWOOD, Md. Vice President Al Gore yesterday reversed a stance he took in February and urged President Clinton to tap the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to drive down the price of heating oil and gasoline before winter.
"We cannot just wait around. Families need action now," Mr. Gore said, standing in front of storage tanks at Burch Oil Co., a distributor of home heating fuels and motor oils in St. Mary's County.
"There are steps that we can take right now before winter sets in to make heating oil affordable and to bring gasoline prices down at the pump."
Mr. Gore recommended that Mr. Clinton undertake "several" 5-million-barrel releases from the government's petroleum reserve of 571 million barrels.
"Assuming that is successful, we should continue with these swaps in an effort to stabilize the price of oil at lower levels and help consumers," Mr. Gore said.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush said that move would be a grave mistake.
"That's bad public policy. The strategic reserve should not be used as an attempt to drive down oil prices right before an election," Mr. Bush said in Cleveland yesterday after he toured a manufacturing plant.
Mr. Bush said the strategic reserve is intended as an insurance policy meant for a sudden disruption in the nation's energy supply or for war.
"It should not be used for short-term political gain at the cost of long-term national security," he said.
The White House took a wait-and-see attitude on Mr. Gore's proposal.
"We have a number of options before us," White House spokesman Jake Siewert said. "The president has been looking at this for a while," and "he's taking that [Gore proposal] under consideration."
But some Cabinet members just like Mr. Gore have strongly opposed the move in the past.
Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers wrote in a Sept. 13 memo that it "would be a major and substantial policy mistake" to make sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to drive down oil prices.
Mr. Summers backtracked yesterday after someone leaked his memo to the Wall Street Journal.
"We have always recognized that this would be, and indeed has been, a rapidly evolving situation and we all need to monitor it closely," Mr. Summers told the Associated Press.
"There are a number of approaches for the prudent use of SPR that are now on the table, including those the vice president has proposed, which could be appropriate in current circumstances."
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said Mr. Summers wrote the memo in response to a Department of Energy proposal to release 60 million barrels of oil from the reserve.
On Wednesday, ABC's "World News Tonight" broadcast footage of Mr. Gore dismissing the idea of tapping the petroleum reserve Feb. 19 during a town-hall meeting in Springfield, Mass. Mr. Gore said oil-producing countries could easily negate such a step.
"All they would have to do is to cut back a little bit on the supply and they'd wipe out any impact from releasing oil from the reserve," Mr. Gore said at the time.
"Last winter, Al Gore thought tapping the oil reserves was bad policy, but now with the election just 47 days away, he's engineering an election-year ploy," Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said.
"The situations are vastly different," Mr. Lehane countered. "People have to buy home heating oil," now, as prices reach a 10-year peak, he said.
"We're on the cusp of a crisis."
In July, the Clinton administration established a home-heating oil reserve in the Northeast to stock 2 million barrels of oil.
Mr. Gore yesterday called on Congress to authorize a permanent home heating oil reserve in the Northeast.
Mr. Gore also proposed a temporary tax credit for wholesale purchases of home heating oil from refiners or heating-oil importers. Mr. Gore said the tax credit of 5 cents per barrel in October, declining to 4 cents a barrel in November and 3 cents a barrel in December would cost $600 million and would increase home heating-oil stocks by 3.6 million barrels.
Mr. Bush favors stepping up diplomatic pressure on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase oil production in the short term. In the long term, he favors reducing America's dependency on foreign oil by expanding exploration of U.S. oil and gas reserves, including offshore deposits.
Mr. Bush, intensifying his criticism of the administration's oil policy, mentions the issue at nearly every event.
The Texas governor promises to increase domestic oil production, particularly by allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, which the Clinton administration has forbidden.
"There are a lot of environmental concerns with exploration," Mr. Bush said yesterday during an appearance on "Live with Regis," a morning talk show hosted by Regis Philbin. "But I'm convinced we can explore and keep the environment."
Republicans on Capitol Hill criticized Mr. Gore for "playing politics" and questioned whether tapping into the reserve is legal.
The Senate chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee said the reserve cannot be used to stabilize oil prices at a lower level.
"The law governing the SPR is very clear. It says the reserve is to be used in cases of severe supply disruption," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska.
"It doesn't say the president can release oil to intervene in markets and attempt to lower prices," Mr. Murkowski said at a press conference.
Republicans said both the president and Mr. Gore want "to avoid a train wreck" of skyrocketing prices before the November election.
"The president should not tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve just to give a campaign boost to his vice president and his wife," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.
However, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, praised Mr. Gore's proposal. He asked Mr. Bush and his running mate, Richard B. Cheney, to "put politics aside."
"I am concerned that with opposition from Bush and Cheney, this critical step to stabilize oil prices could become a huge political battle in Congress leading to attempts to stop the administration from acting," Mr. Schumer said.
Some Northeast Republicans favor releasing oil from the reserve to help their constituents avert a home heating oil crisis.
Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine are requesting a meeting with Mr. Clinton to discuss a release from the reserve. Mrs. Snowe met with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson Wednesday.
"Persistently high fuel costs had devastating effects in Maine last year," Mrs. Snowe said, "and we need to leave no stone unturned in our effort to make sure our region's consumers are not forced to endure another winter of having to choose between heating their homes and buying groceries for their families."
Sean Scully, traveling with Mr. Bush in Ohio, and Audrey Hudson and David Boyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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