WASHINGTON - In phrases that resonated with rhetoric from the 1970s energy crisis, President Clinton warned yesterday that Americans will continue to pay "fundamentally higher" oil prices until they stop driving gas-guzzling cars and find other ways to conserve energy.
Speaking at a White House news conference, Clinton also blamed a healthy world economy and production facilities operating near capacity for gas prices that have exceeded $2 per gallon in the Midwest and averaged $1.71 per gallon nationwide last week, according to industry surveys.
"We will have fundamentally higher prices, now that the rest of the world's economy has recovered and now that virtually all the OPEC members but Saudi Arabia are operating virtually at full capacity, until we make up our minds that we are going to drive higher-mileage vehicles and do other things that use less oil," Clinton said.
"The only real answer for this is for us to develop alternative sources to oil and more efficient ways of using the energy we have," he said.
Oil industry analysts confirmed Clinton's assertion that most members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries are operating at or near capacity.
By addressing an economic trend that threatens to crimp Americans' summer vacation budgets, Clinton waded into an increasingly heated election campaign issue.
On Tuesday, Vice President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic nominee for president, called for a $125 billion program to promote oil-free technologies through tax credits and other mechanisms.
A spokesman for Gore's likely Republican opponent, George W. Bush, said the vice president "is offering recycled ideas that will not reduce our dependence on foreign oil." Bush, who says the Clinton administration is to blame for high gas prices, favors applying diplomatic pressure to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other members of OPEC to boost their oil production.
Clinton offered no quick solutions for gas-pump prices yesterday. He said energy prices depend largely on economic forces outside a president's control.
He credited an investigation into rising energy costs by the Federal Trade Commission, announced last week, for slightly reducing gas prices in some regions. Contributions from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve helped alleviate shortages that resulted from pipeline breakdowns in some areas, he said.
But higher gas prices were "inevitable," Clinton said, once Asia began to recover from its 1998 economic crisis, consuming more oil and driving up prices.
New Jersey, Indiana and other states have temporarily rolled back gas taxes to help consumers cope with higher prices. Asked whether the federal government should consider suspending its 18 cent-per-gallon gas tax, Clinton said, "Inherently, there's nothing wrong with it."
But, he added, such a measure would require replacing the lost revenue with another source unless road and other transportation projects funded through the tax are curtailed.
The White House news conference, Clinton's third this year, touched on a wide range of issues, including an agreement by House Republicans to ease economic sanctions on Cuba, a proposed Washington-based summit to promote peace between Israel and Palestinians, the peace process in Ireland, the presidential campaign and Clinton's legacy.
Asked whether the scandals that have tarred his presidency would hurt Gore's chance at the White House, Clinton raised his voice to endorse the vice president and to lash out at his critics.
"Let me remind you that a lot of these so-called scandals were bogus," Clinton said, noting meager results from several high-profile investigations into his administration. "The word `scandal' was thrown around here like a clanging teapot for seven years, and I keep waiting for somebody to say that a whole bunch of this stuff was just garbage, that we had totally innocent people prosecuted because they wouldn't lie."
The president, who was impeached by the House for perjury and obstruction of justice in December 1998 and acquitted by the Senate a few weeks later, noted two cases. The first was that of former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in connection with allegedly lying to FBI agents about payments to a former mistress. The second involved former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who was acquitted of all charges relating to allegations that he took favors from companies regulated by his department.
Clinton denied that scandals have hurt the vice president and called Gore "right on the issues." But equally important, Clinton said, "No person in the history of the republic has ever had the positive impact on this country as vice president that Al Gore has had."
Clinton said he would be inclined to sign a bill allowing the sale of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba, but expressed reservations about a provision that would restrict U.S. travelers there and another that would prohibit the president from imposing food and medical sanctions on any country without congressional approval.
"I have always wanted to sell more food and medicine not only to Cuba but to other countries as well," Clinton said.
Commenting on the recent decision by the Irish Republican Army to allow inspections of its weapons caches, Clinton called for similar concessions by the IRA's foes, presumably Protestant Irish militias.
"It would be good for all the paramilitary groups that have secret arms caches to follow their lead," he said.