PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN Will energy policy take lead role?
Gas prices have become a volatile subject with the candidates.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
WASHINGTON -- Record-high gasoline prices surged to the forefront of the presidential campaign Tuesday, as OPEC prepared to consider new production cuts and Republicans and Democrats faulted each other for failing to halt the spiral.
Democratic presidential contender John F. Kerry said President Bush should stop pumping oil into the government's emergency reserves, which could dampen prices, and should pressure the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to open its taps. His campaign sought to link high gas prices to the r & eacute;sum & eacute;s of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both former oil-industry executives.
Bush aides accused Kerry of supporting higher gas taxes in the past and criticized lawmakers for not passing the president's energy plan. Members of Congress called for drastic moves to appease aggravated motorists.
What experts say
Industry experts said it was unlikely 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. "The kinds of things you can really do something about are the kinds of things neither party has the stomach for."
The debate could signal that energy policy will have a prominent role in this year's presidential election campaign. Kerry's attack on the president 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.
On Capitol Hill, both sides promised to turn up the heat on energy legislation. 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 said the price increases were costing the average American family $289 a year.
The nationwide average price of regular unleaded gasoline set a record of $1.758 a gallon Monday, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
"I'll tell you what, If the gas prices keep rising at the rate they are now, Dick Cheney and George Bush are going to have to carpool to work," Kerry told supporters at the University of California, San Diego, after stopping by a Shell station, where a gallon of regular was going for $2.20. "Those aren't Exxon prices, those are Halliburton prices."
Kerry accused Bush of not fulfilling a 2000 campaign promise to pressure OPEC to boost production to keep prices in check. 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.
The Bush camp unveiled a television ad accusing Kerry of supporting a 50-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax. Titled "Wacky," the ad features fast-motion, black-and-white action sequences resembling scenes from a Charlie Chaplin comedy.
"Some people have wacky ideas, like taxing gasoline more so people drive less," a narrator says, as the ad shows cars driving in circles and a man pushing his antique auto up a hill.
"Maybe John Kerry just doesn't understand what his ideas mean to the rest of us," the ad says.
Two Boston newspapers 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.
Resistance by Bush
Bush has so far resisted calls to suspend oil deposits in the government's strategic reserve, saying the reserve should be used only to address supply issues, not pricing.
On Tuesday, 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, to bolster domestic reserves of natural gas, to modernize the nation's electrical grid and to encourage energy conservation.
Independent analysts expressed doubts about Washington's ability to do much in the short term to reduce high gasoline prices.
They said OPEC oil ministers were anticipating a seasonal drop in demand during the second quarter and were unlikely to raise production to appease politicians in the United States.