Clinton urges energy saving

Soaring gas prices seen as `wake-up call' for more conservation

March 30, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said yesterday that though OPEC's decision to boost oil production should reduce gasoline prices soon, surging fuel costs should serve as a "wake-up call" for the nation to take energy conservation more seriously.

"I hope this has been a sobering experience for the American people, and that we can now do more," Clinton said, concluding an hourlong White House news conference that ranged from energy policy to a passionate plea for China's entry into the World Trade Organization to a defiant denial of wrongdoing in the 1996 campaign fund-raising abuses.

With nine months left in his presidency, Clinton called the news conference to press a reluctant Congress to act on his agenda. He called for the passage of gun control legislation, a Medicare prescription drug benefit, protections for managed care patients, a measure to grant the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco and legislation to discourage the grade promotion of schoolchildren who have failed to attain academic skills.

But with U.S. drivers reeling from gasoline prices nearing $2 a gallon, the president dwelled at length on energy policy. He hailed the decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to raise crude oil production by 1.7 million barrels a day. The administration had applied heavy pressure on OPEC -- especially on the cartel's biggest producer, Saudi Arabia -- to open the spigot.

The OPEC pledge -- coupled with separate vows by the non-OPEC nations of Mexico, Norway and Oman to raise production by a total of 400,000 barrels a day -- should more than meet the 2 million extra barrels a day that the administration said was needed to reverse the rise of gasoline prices.

OPEC's decision "is good news for our economy and for the American people," Clinton said. But, he added, Americans should do their part by adopting energy-efficient products, from light bulbs to solar panels to insulating windows.

As for gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, the president said that while many Americans favor them, "we're either going to have to find a way for them to get better mileage or run on alternative fuels."

The president also pleaded with Congress -- especially with lawmakers of his own party -- to approve the permanent extension of China's "normal trade relations status" and thus allow China to join the World Trade Organization. Clinton has parted company with his allies in the labor movement who fear that China's accession to the WTO could shift some U.S. jobs overseas while rewarding political repression.

Vice President Al Gore, eager to maintain strong union support, has said he favors the WTO agreement. But he has vowed to include more stringent worker and environmental protection agreements in any future trade accord.

Clinton dismissed such misgivings. He said the WTO agreement would open the enormous Chinese market to U.S. products, create jobs at home and draw China into the global free market system. If Congress fails to act, the president said, the concessions the administration has coaxed from the Chinese -- on lower tariffs and more open markets -- will flow to European and Japanese competitors.

"This is a 100-to-nothing deal for America when it comes to the economic consequences," Clinton said.

The tone that Clinton set on campaign fund-raising improprieties was strikingly different from that of his vice president. This week, Gore conceded that Democrats had "engaged in fund raising that pushed the system to the breaking point" during the 1996 presidential race, calling himself "an imperfect messenger" for the cause of campaign finance reform.

Clinton said yesterday that he had done nothing wrong and that the White House had spent $4 million complying with the investigations. Even amid new questions about a White House effort to withhold e-mails from investigators, Clinton insisted on his administration's innocence.

"There was no slow-walking, no stonewalling, no nothing," he said. "I was outraged when I found out that the system for checking the backgrounds of contributors had been dismantled without my knowledge or approval. I was as appalled as the next person when I found out that people had given us money that wasn't legal. We didn't need it to win. It was wrong, and we did everything we could to try to correct it."

The president suffered another setback yesterday stemming from scandals he had hoped were behind him when a federal judge ruled that Clinton and several top aides violated the privacy rights of Kathleen Willey. In 1998, the White House released personal letters Willey had written to the president to try to refute her allegations that he had groped her in the Oval Office.

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