Kerry, Bush spar on gasoline prices

Administration rejects criticism on soaring costs

March 31, 2004|By Warren Vieth and Richard Simon | Warren Vieth and Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Record-high gasoline prices surged to the forefront of the presidential campaign yesterday, as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries prepared to consider new production cuts and Republicans and Democrats faulted each other for failing to halt the spiral.

Democratic presidential contender John Kerry said President Bush should stop pumping oil into the government's emergency reserves and should pressure OPEC to open its taps.

Bush has resisted calls to suspend oil deposits in the reserve, saying it should be used only to address supply issues, not pricing.

Kerry's campaign sought to link high gas prices to the resumes of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both former executives in the oil industry. Bush aides accused Kerry of supporting higher gas taxes in the past and criticized lawmakers for not approving the president's energy plan.

Industry experts said it was unlikely that any of the proposals would provide much relief. "In terms of the impact on the price of gasoline, it might be a penny a gallon," energy economist James Williams said.

Kerry's attack on Bush was part of a broader pitch for reducing dependence on foreign oil. Bush's rebuttal included a reminder that shortages of natural gas and electricity deserve attention, too.

The initial spark was provided by Kerry, who blamed Bush for contributing to an 11.5 percent increase in gasoline prices since taking office in 2001. He accused Bush of not fulfilling a 2000 campaign promise to pressure OPEC to boost production.

The price of crude has risen far above the cartel's target range of $22 to $28 a barrel in recent months, but OPEC ministers are expected to discuss further production cuts during a meeting today in Vienna, Austria.

Kerry said the price problem was exacerbated by a patchwork system of more than 300 local and state fuel regulations that limits the ability to move gasoline from areas where it is plentiful to those where it is in short supply. He promised to simplify the system if elected.

Meanwhile, the Bush camp unveiled a television ad accusing Kerry of supporting a 50-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax.

Two Boston newspapers had quoted Kerry in 1994 as verbally supporting a 50-cent increase in the gas tax as part of a larger deficit-reduction package. However, the Kerry campaign says the senator never voted for a 50-cent gas tax increase, nor did he sponsor legislation to enact one.

Yesterday, the president called on key lawmakers to resolve their differences over his comprehensive energy plan. He said its passage was needed to reduce dependence on foreign oil, bolster domestic reserves of natural gas, modernize the nation's electrical grid and encourage energy conservation.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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