Petroleum Politics: After 20 Years, Oil Is Campaign Issue ; with Oil Prices the Highest in 10 Years, Republicans Have Begun Urging People to Vote Their Heating Bill

Article excerpt

The Mobil gas station in lower Manhattan posted a wallet- emptying price of $1.56 for a gallon of unleaded gasoline. On Wednesday, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used those prices as a backdrop to denounce President Clinton for "napping" while oil prices skyrocketed.

"The price of home heating and our gasoline is unfortunately going through the roof," said Mayor Giuliani, who, not coincidentally, is running for senator against the president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As Giuliani's attack illustrates, for the first time in almost 20 years, the price of energy is becoming a political issue. Republicans are seizing on high petroleum prices and are trying to link them to Democrats.

The Republican National Committee is attacking the Kyoto Treaty on global climate change - backed by Vice President Al Gore - as yet another way energy prices might rise. The RNC - which says that to meet the treaty requirements, the US will have to raise energy taxes - plans to highlight the issue in every state.

"The high price of energy is one of the first real chinks in the economic armor Republicans can use against the Clinton-Gore administration," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Republicans have to use what little they have."

The political stakes do not appear to be lost on the White House. This week, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is trying to persuade Middle East oil producers to step up output. Next week, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will meet to decide production quotas. Last year, OPEC cut production by 8 percent at a time when demand was starting to rise.

Now, energy experts believe worldwide demand is outstripping supply by about 4 million barrels of oil per day. According to early reports, the group is likely to increase output, but it's not clear when or by how much.

This week the White House got a taste of the political problems it might face if Mr. Richardson is not successful.

A long line of truck drivers rambled around the capital to protest high diesel prices. Northeast officials on both sides of the political fence are calling on Mr. Clinton to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), a move he has rejected so far because he does not consider it a national emergency. Instead, he has released additional funds to help low-income people heat their homes.

In Washington, the Democratic National Committee says the Republicans have opposed efforts to make the high prices more bearable by providing heating assistance to the poor. "Given the choice of helping families in need through programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Republicans choose the special interest every time," says Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the DNC. …