The energy angle

The US faces no overriding energy problem at this time, only higher product prices that are a natural result of market forces.

The US faces no overriding energy problem at this time, only higher product prices that are a natural result of market forces.

That's why it's puzzling that energy should be blossoming as an issue in the presidential campaign battles of Vice Pres. Al Gore, the Democratic Party's nominee, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican contender.

Naturally, the oil and gas industry would like to see its problems and concerns get more attention on the national stage.

Many in the industry would like to see US policymakers draft an energy policy that balances the nation's priorities with policies that recognize the need for liberalized access to onshore and offshore public lands.

But a presidential campaign isn't a venue for problem-solving, and the industry probably has more to lose than it has to gain if the debate escalates.

Campaign fodder

The politicians are aware that the public is concerned about higher gasoline prices and the potential for home heating oil and diesel price spikes this winter.

Last month, Gore urged the administration to draw crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease distillate price and supply concerns. The Clinton administration quickly complied. Score one for Gore.

Gore should be more vulnerable on energy issues than he appears. His book, Earth in the Balance, urged policies that would raise energy prices. And he was the environmental CEO of an administration that tried unsuccessfully to pass sharply higher energy taxes. Bush hasn't scored well on those points.

Although Gore is the heir to a family trust that contains a large block of oil stock, he has worked to paint Bush-a former oil operator-as being unacceptably aligned with the oil industry. And it doesn't help that Bush's running mate, Richard Cheney, is a former Halliburton Co. chairman and CEO.

Gore said the national energy agenda should not be "of big oil, by big oil, and for big oil." Score another for Gore.

ANWR drilling

Surprisingly, Bush seemingly has played into Gore's hand by advocating an energy platform that would allow oil exploration on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) Coastal Plain in northeastern Alaska.

That position echoed a plank in the party's platform, but it could cost Bush votes. He should have remained silent on the issue and then-if elected-pushed for environmentally benign exploration.

Instead, Bush proposed a tradeoff. He pledged to earmark federal royalties from ANWR exploration, totaling "hundred of millions of dollars" per year, for conservation programs. And he would use the bonus bids from ANWR lease sales to fund research on alternative energies such as wind, solar, and biomass.

That's unlikely to win the votes of any environmentalists, and the subtlety may be lost on common voters.

They're more likely to hear Gore's message: "We do not have to sacrifice our environment and our environmental treasures in order to satisfy the appetite of big oil companies to go into new areas."

More in Economics & Markets