Oil price increase likely to become big issue in presidential election

Republicans in Congress blame Clinton and Gore


WASHINGTON -- Republicans in Congress have begun to blame the Clinton administration generally and Vice President Al Gore in particular for the recent jump in the price of gasoline, and it seems sure to become a hot issue in the presidential race.

When prices started to rise, "the administration was asleep at the wheel," Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader, said last week.

Sen. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska said flatly what was on the minds of many of his fellow Republicans: "This is going to be a big issue in the political campaign."

The matter was hardly raised in the presidential primaries, largely because there was little difference in the positions of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the one hand and those of Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey on the other. But the Bush and Gore camps have little doubt that they will be arguing about this until the election in November.

The average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline, which was about $1.25 at Christmas, is more than $1.35. Last week, the Energy Department warned that the price would rise to an average of $1.80 and as high as $2 a gallon in some places by summer.

The main reason for the increase was a decision in March 1999 by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and one major producer that does not belong to the cartel, Mexico, to force up the price of crude oil by limiting production. The price of a barrel of crude oil is about $32, up from $12 a year ago.

The principal response from the Clinton administration has been to try to persuade the oil-producing nations to reverse course. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told the House Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power last week that he expected a decision to raise production when OPEC meets March 27.

These are some of the proposals being considered in Congress: Releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Suspending the federal tax on diesel fuel, repealing the 4.3 cent additional gasoline tax or both.

Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and perhaps other federal land in the American West to oil exploration.

Repealing a moratorium on offshore drilling.

Some or all of those proposals will be debated when Congress considers renewal of the law creating the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which expires this month.

Richardson recommended against release on the ground that price fluctuation did not meet the test of an emergency. Bush agreed with Richardson in January.

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