A LESSON IN ENERGY POLITICS

A luxurious lesson oozes from this week's fall from political favor by the US energy secretary.

A luxurious lesson oozes from this week's fall from political favor by the US energy secretary.

Until now, Energy Sec. Bill Richardson had been considered-and was doing his level best to be-a top contender to become the running mate of Vice-President Al Gore in the latter's campaign for the presidency.

Two developments may have spoiled his chances.

Reports have surfaced of secret documents missing after fire threatened a New Mexico national laboratory managed by the Department of Energy. And gasoline prices surged past $2/gal in the Midwest.

Richardson has the backbone to take aboard whatever he must concerning the security lapse at the national lab, which is his responsibility. It was no doubt just a sign of frustration when he gushed before cameras about being outraged by the affair, as though that would improve anything.

The lesson for energy politics emerges from Richardson's other problem, which he created for himself.

The holder of his job inevitably draws criticism when prices of oil products rise to extraordinary levels. Such blame is mistargeted. Markets, not energy secretaries, set oil prices. The lesson in all this is that pretension to the contrary always comes to grief.

Richardson made the mistake last March of pretending to have more influence than he actually does over crude oil prices and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

During the meeting at which OPEC members belatedly recognized shortage and agreed to raise production, Richardson made a pest of himself lobbying ministers to do what they were destined to do anyway. In the US since then, he has claimed more credit than he deserves for a production increase that might well have been greater if he hadn't been so pushy.

He thus worked to create the impression that he had some say in the price of oil, and now he's paying the political price. He took undue credit for a brief sag in the price of crude. Now he takes undue blame for a leap in the price of gasoline.

Gore is reported to be no longer returning his phone calls.

Oil and gas companies can't write this off to political amusement. Richardson, desperate to get the shine back on his armor, has turned on them. In a press appearance this week, he demanded an explanation for gasoline prices he proclaimed to be too high, even if the explanation pointed to "collusion."

In a political year, with gasoline prices testing new extremes, the mere suggestion of collusion is serious. It is an unfair rebuke to an industry doing its best to cure shortage. And it does no service to oil consumers or taxpayers. But so it goes in energy politics.

Richardson blundered into blame for high oil prices and now needs to scrape it off on someone else.

About high gasoline prices, there simply is no mystery. The world is short of oil. Inventories are too low. Yet demand is still rising. In the US, the start-up of toughened summertime specifications for reformulated gasoline coupled with problems on key pipelines have caused distribution problems. Product isn't lavishly available from abroad. Prices rise in these conditions.

The DOE's own Energy Information Administration has documented the phenomena, offering Richardson all the explanation he should need. Instead of throwing blame on oil companies, he should be telling consumers that until inventories rebuild to give the oil-supply system the cushion it needs, prices might rise even more.

Other than OPEC's loose management of crude supply, there's no collusion in any of this. Richardson erred when he uttered the suggestion, just as he erred when he tried to play to the grandstands at OPEC's expense.

The price miscue probably helped destroy his chance at the vice-presidency, at least on this election cycle. After the collusion remark, the oil industry has reason to consider that a constructive development.

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