Oil Debate Boils

By Maier, Timothy W. | Insight on the News, October 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Oil Debate Boils


Maier, Timothy W., Insight on the News


What has thrown three incumbent presidents out of office and threatens to pull down the Democrats' bid to keep the White House? Oil -- or lack of it.

It's baaaack! Despite White House pressure on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to increase production and thereby cut fuel prices, oil rage is in full swing just before the presidential election. Six months ago Insight predicted oil would be this year's hot campaign issue (see "Fueling Frenzy," April 24) and now it is threatening to dominate the presidential debates.

Democrats are deeply worried. Vice President Al Gore appears to be running for cover as he trots out alibis and excuses for a failed policy in which the Clinton/Gore Department of Energy admits it has been asleep at the wheel. Even Energy Secretary Bill Richardson confesses, "We were caught napping. We got complacent."

Indeed they were and they did. But millions of voters are wide awake and appear angrier than ever that the Clinton/Gore team misled the public by claiming as late as last November that there was no shrinkage of supply. Now voters can see the truth at the gas pumps and in higher home-heating bills. Economists are saying this failure of leadership -- or conscious effort to restrict U.S. energy production -- could overwhelm the economy and produce panic as well as a recession.

Marshall Jenkins is a woodcutter from Culpeper, Va., who wishes Gore could feel his pain. He no longer can afford to heat his house with gas and in the spring had to retire his three-ton diesel. "I just can't afford to run that truck," Jenkins says of the $100 it costs to top off the tank.

Jenkins' tanned and weathered skin speaks volumes about the hours he's spent working outdoors cutting and chopping wood. The quiet, mild-mannered Jenkins says that with these high fuel prices people will be bracing themselves for a long, cold winter. Even with the rise of prices for diesel fuel, Jenkins says he doesn't feel right about charging more for a cord of wood. "A lot of my customers are elderly people and they can't afford a whole lot more," says the outdoorsman.

Jenkins is just one of thousands of people in the Culpeper area, southwest of Washington, who are feeling the pinch of rising fuel prices. With more than half the population there tied to the wood industry and dependent on trucks and equipment that consume oil products, everyone in this Northern Virginia town feels the crunch of high oil prices.

Allen Whetzel is the owner of Redneck Equipment, a logging-supply store in Culpeper. A native of the area, Whetzel says most people don't realize how hard it is to gather and chop all the wood that the area's woodcutters deliver. Leaning across the counter in his shop, Whetzel is happy to offer his thoughts on the current oil crisis, piling plenty of blame on the federal government's policies.

"What I want to do is get a whole bunch of people like me to drive 10 miles per hour around the Washington Beltway," Whetzel says. He explains that the bureaucrats don't personally feel the effect of rising fuel costs, "but if they all get to work a few hours late, then they'll start to notice," he says with a knowing nod. "It don't make any sense to me why we give billions of dollars in aid to these oil-producing countries and then they screw us around with oil prices."

Some Republicans, such as House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman of New York, agree with Whetzel; earlier this year he attempted to pass legislation that would have required the Clinton/Gore administration to cut foreign aid and military sales to countries that fix oil prices. But analysts pointed out that it would have little impact because total aid to the OPEC countries amounts to less than $300 million in a total U.S. foreign-aid budget of about $23 billion.

To show appropriate sensitivity just before an election the Clinton team offered what critics called a Band-Aid solution to the oil crisis by releasing 30 million barrels of oil from emergency stockpiles. …

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