Gore Urges Clinton to Tap Strategic Oil Reserve

Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore is calling on President Clinton to tap the nation’s emergency oil stockpile to combat decade-high oil prices.

“Today, there are families … all across the country who are wondering how they are going to be able to pay for heat this winter,” Gore told supporters gathered at a heating oil distributor in southern Maryland this morning. “We have to change that.”

The way to change it, the vice president said, is to put on the market some of the nearly 600 million barrels of crude oil known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

“We cannot just wait around,” Gore insisted. “Families need action now.”

Strategic Decision?

But Republican candidate George W. Bush accused his opponent of playing politics with the nation’s energy policy, arguing the reserve should only be tapped in a national emergency.

“That’s bad public policy,” Bush said this afternoon. “The strategic reserve is an insurance policy meant for a sudden disruption of our energy supply or for war.”

“The strategic reserve should not be used as an attempt to drive down oil prices right before an election,” Bush continued. “It should not be used for short-term political gain at the cost of long-term national security.”

The Bush campaign seized on a newspaper report that Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has advised the president that tapping the reserve “would be a big mistake.” Summers wrote in a memo to Clinton that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan shared his objections to the idea, The Wall Street Journal reported today.

“Al Gore likes to boast about his economic team’s sage advice and their stewardship of the economy,” said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett. “But now, 47 days before the election, Al Gore is ignoring their advice in a transparent attempt to cover up eight years of failed energy policies.”

One administration official told ABCNEWS that Summers’ comments were taken “out of context” and pointed out that the memo quoted by the paper was written a week ago when oil prices were substantially lower.

The official stressed that Gore’s plan — which calls for the incremental release of the reserve in 5-million barrel “swaps” — is “far less aggressive” than earlier proposals to tap the entire reserve.

What is striking, however, is the degree to which a proposal made by Gore in his capacity as the Democratic presidential nominee is being treated by administration officials as White House policy.

Under Pressure

Gore’s remarks came just as the White House came under increasing political pressure from within his own party to act. Congressional Democrats from Northeastern states, which are hit hardest by high heating oil costs, applauded the proposal.

“This is a breakthrough moment that will help low-income and middle-class consumers get through the winter without having to reach deep into their pockets,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who had been urging the administration to tap the reserve.

The vice president’s call for action today was, however, a departure from his position last winter, when heating oil prices first started to climb. He said then that tapping the reserve would lead to retaliation by oil-producing countries.

“All they would have to do is cut back a little bit on the supply and they’d wipe out any impact from releasing oil from that reserve,” he said at a town hall meeting in February.

Bush says the solution to rising oil costs is to compel the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) — several of whose 11 members were part of the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition in 1991 — to “open the spigots” and boost crude oil production.

Today, the Republican candidate also renewed his call to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to oil drilling.

“Let me tell you what I’d like to do,” Bush told voters at a Social Security forum in Cleveland. “Aggressively explore for oil and natural gas on our own continent. I believe we need to open-up ANWR … and believe we can do so in an environmentally friendly way.”

The 19-million acre wilderness refuge set aside by Congress in 1980 represents 5 percent of Alaska’s oil rich North Slope. Currently, only 1.5 million acres are open to oil and gas development. Gore opposes opening any more of the territory to exploration, saying it would threaten the environment.

Bashing ‘Big Oil’

The vice president today echoed his opponent’s demand for OPEC to ramp-up production urging the cartel to “get serious” and stabilize oil prices at a lower level. But Gore also sought to lay the blame for soaring heating oil and gasoline prices squarely at the feet of American oil companies.

“At a time when profits are gushing through the roof,” he said. “‘Big oil’ needs to stop the profiteering.”

Gore has accused the oil industry of price-gouging and collusion, charges that currently are under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

“This isn’t rocket science,” he said today. “We know what is going on here and we have to end it … If I am president, I am going to stand up to ‘big oil’ and demand fair prices for our families.”

Gore’s advisers blasted Bush’s ANWR proposal and highlighted the GOP ticket’s ties to the oil industry.

“Bush and Cheney don’t want to bring down the cost of oil because they’re in the pocket of ‘big oil,’” said Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway. “Their only energy policy is to open our wilderness areas to their friends in the oil industry.”

Bush is the founder and former CEO of Bush Exploration Oil and Gas and Cheney served as the CEO of Halliburton, a leading oil services company, until he resigned to run for vice president. Cheney received a $20 million retirement package from the company and holds approximately $45 million worth of Halliburton stock.

But the Democratic candidate has oil industry ties of his own. The vice president is the executor of his late father’s estate, which holds as much as $500,000 worth of stock in Occidental Petroleum. Recently, the company went forward with a controversial plan to drill for oil in a remote region of Colombia that an indigenous tribe claims is sacred ground.

Clinton Decision ‘Imminent’

White House sources tell ABCNEWS Clinton may announce his decision on whether or not to tap the strategic stockpile as early as Friday.

“The president is actively considering that right now,” Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said today at a House Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. “At this very moment, a decision is imminent.”

But the secretary cautioned that the administration has been “very reluctant” to release oil from the reserve in the past.

“He may decide not to tap it,” Richardson warned. “We’ve been very reluctant to tap it in the past.”

Gore’s proposal calls for releases from the 570 million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve in 5 million barrel increments to drive down prices. It also includes long-term measures such as the creation of a permanent heating oil reserve, a temporary tax credit for oil distributors aimed at increasing heating oil supplies and $400 million in energy assistance for low-income families.

Sources tell ABCNEWS the president is considering a variety of “middle of the road options” that would “split the difference” between those arguing for release of the entire reserve and none at all.

The Gore plan would fit that description.

The first and last time the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was used was in 1991, during the Gulf War when George Bush, the Republican nominee’s father, was president.

ABCNEWS’ John Cochran, Rebecca Cooper and Dana Hill contributed to this report.