Energy buzz

Congress has done a pretty good job of ignoring oil and gas issues the past decade.

Congress has done a pretty good job of ignoring oil and gas issues the past decade.

Even when oil prices plunged to decade lows last year and producers were in dire straits, Congress did little to help them.

But soaring home heating oil and gasoline prices the past 2 months have changed everything. Suddenly, legislators are filing or cosponsoring energy bills right and left.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is in the driver's seat on oil prices, and the Clinton administration is in the hot seat.

It has urged key OPEC producers to raise output. It has refused to draw down the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower prices (but has kept the option open in case OPEC is uncooperative.) It has rejected a suggestion that economic sanctions against Iraq be lifted in order to get more oil to the world market.

And in a meeting Mar. 10, Energy Sec. Bill Richardson urged US refiners to increase refinery runs to get more gasoline to market as soon as possible.

Gasoline issue

Congressional clamor for a gasoline tax seems to have abated.

Some legislators had urged repeal of a 4.3¢/gal increase the administration pushed through in 1993, which raised the federal tax to 18.4¢/gal.

Others wanted to suspend the 24.4¢/gal tax on diesel fuel until the end of the year.

House Republican leaders and the Clinton administration opposed a gasoline tax rollback.

Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, said that, with gasoline prices rising so quickly, consumers wouldn't notice a 4.3¢ boon, but it would cost the Highway Trust Fund $600 million/month.

Richardson said the rollback is unnecessary because OPEC will raise production at its Mar. 27 meeting. He predicted gasoline prices will remain volatile and may increase in the next few months, but then they will drop and stabilize.

Political issue

This is an election year, and high energy prices are a great political issue.

Because Vice-President Al Gore cast the tie-breaking Senate vote that passed the 4.3¢ tax increase, Republicans are happily calling it "the Gore gas tax."

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has criticized the administration for failing to do more, sooner, on oil prices. He said that, since the US liberated Kuwait in the Gulf War and helped Mexico through a major financial crisis, those nations should show their gratitude now.

Bush supported repeal of the 4.3¢ tax. That prompted Sec. Richardson to suggest that Bush work to reduce Texas' 20¢/gal gasoline tax.

Some members of Congress are angry that the administration's budget proposed $415 million in aid for OPEC nations. A House committee plans to mark up a bill halting that.

Oil-state senators are suddenly pushing various measures to help US producers.

Along those lines, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alas.) and 34 other senators filed a bill to permit exploration and drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

That was mainly a political jab at Clinton, whom they very well know would veto the legislation.

More in General Interest