Pres. Bill Clinton's decision to sell 30 million bbl from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve set the stage for more jousting recently between Energy Sec. Bill Richardson and Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alas.)
Richardson, of course, is the administration's point man on energy policy. Murkowski, as Senate energy and natural resources committee chairman, is the Republican Party's key energy legislator.
Last week, Murkowski held a hearing on the outlook for heating and transportation fuels this winter. His questioning of Richardson was as purely political as the president's SPR decision had been.
The give-and-take continued a running battle the senator and the secretary have waged for 6 months.
Murkowski has repeatedly jabbed at one of the administration's weak points, energy policy, in an attempt to discredit Vice-Pres. Al Gore's campaign for the presidency.
Richardson's usual tactic is to be pleasantly unresponsive to direct questions that have political overtones. Instead, the secretary likes to detail the administration's energy policy achievements-not always too accurately-and plea for bipartisan cooperation on energy problems.
At the hearing, Murkowski tried to expose the drawdown as a political gambit crafted to help Gore's campaign (see Newsletter, p. 7).
Murkowski said, "The timing of the request from candidate Gore and the announcement by the president cannot be overlooked when one seeks out intentions behind this release."
He said selling the SPR crude would do little for consumers because refineries are already operating at or near capacity.
The senator blamed the Clinton administration for recent gasoline and home heating price spikes and high oil prices. Murkowski said, "The US is in the midst of an energy shortage-if not an outright crisis-with US demand outpacing supply in almost every sector. Clearly, there is an energy policy train wreck on the horizon."
He again predicted that US consumers may suffer natural gas price spikes and shortages this winter, warning Richardson that "There's no SPR for natural gas."
Richardson insisted that releasing the SPR crude would have a positive impact on heating oil and diesel fuel supplies.
He said most of the crude is sweet and could be refined easily and quickly. He said although refinery utilization was at 96% in late September, refiners typically operate closer to 90% in October and would have capacity to use the extra oil.
The secretary also noted the administration has selected contractors to fill a temporary 2-million bbl New England heating oil reserve during October.
Richardson stressed the administration's policy has been to let the market dictate prices. He said when the president and cabinet officials decided to draw down the SPR, "we didn't do it for price."
The hearing showed Murkowski and Richardson for the master politicians they are. They made their points forcefully, often entertainingly, and without rancor. Neither "won" the debate, but they both achieved their goals.