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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bush Issues Plan to Cut Oil Prices

Politics: Governor's $7.1-billion program includes drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge.

September 30, 2000|MICHAEL FINNEGAN and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAGINAW, Mich. — George W. Bush rolled out his plan to combat soaring energy prices Friday, prompting a sharp clash with Al Gore over Bush's call for oil drilling in an Alaska refuge for polar bears and other wildlife.

Bush's plan also calls for looser regulations on oil refinery and pipeline construction, increased home-heating subsidies for the poor and new research on cleaner sources of energy. In all, it would cost $7.1 billion over 10 years.

After months of fighting Gore's charge that Bush, a former oil company executive, would favor the industry over consumers and the environment, Bush tried to use the energy issue as a weapon against his Democratic rival.

He blamed Gore and the Clinton administration for the high price of gasoline, electricity and home heating oil, saying their failure to develop an energy policy threatens to plunge the country into recession.

"Without a long-term strategy to ensure steady and reliable supplies of energy, we put at risk our economy and the way of life it supports," Bush told supporters in a factory here.

Bush said opening wilderness in Alaska and other parts of the country to energy exploration would pose no danger to the environment. But Gore, reveling in the signature issue of his 24-year public career--the environment--insisted otherwise.

"It would take years and years of development, which would cause decades of environmental damage, just to reap a few months of increased oil supply," Gore told environmentalists in Chevy Chase, Md. He called oil exploration in the refuge "bad environmental policy and bad energy policy."

The vice president spoke in a small grove surrounded by towering hemlocks on the grounds of the Audubon Naturalist Society.

"Pollution should never be the price of prosperity," he said.

At the same time, his running mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, campaigned in a Houston park surrounded by smokestacks and silos to spotlight what Democrats call Bush's abysmal environmental record as governor of Texas.

"There's not a lot to brag about," Lieberman said as an odor of sulfur wafted by.

"Does Gov. Bush want to do for America's environment what he's done here in Texas?"

The long-distance sparring offered a preview of the conflict likely to mark the first debate between Bush and Gore on Tuesday in Boston.

As Gore and Bush jockey for the support of middle-class voters in their extraordinarily close race, the rising cost of fuel and electricity has emerged as a potent issue.

Last week, President Clinton, spurred by a request from Gore, ordered the sale of 30 million barrels of oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to drive down energy prices and assure a steady supply of home heating oil for winter.

Since then, the price of crude oil has dropped from more than $37 a barrel to just over $31.

In his speech, Bush dismissed Clinton's move as a ploy for votes.

"At best, we merely swap slightly lower prices before the election for higher prices after Nov. 7," he told 200 supporters seated amid heavy machinery on the factory floor of Wright-K Technology Inc., an aircraft parts maker.

Bush lamented the high price of gasoline across the nation, skyrocketing electricity bills in parts of California and the rising cost of heating oil in the Midwest and Northeast.

"The situation is critical for our nation," he said. "President Clinton warns of a possible recession. His fears could be well placed. You see, our nation has had three recessions in the last generation, each one of them ties to an energy shock."

Bush also played to the fears of voters in Michigan--one of the campaign's most hotly contested states--that Gore would harm the auto industry at the heart of the state's economy. He recalled in Gore's book, "Earth in the Balance," the vice president called for abolishing the internal combustion engine.

"In speeches, he calls auto workers his friends. In his book, he declares the engines they make an enemy."

A key goal of Bush's 10-year plan is to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. One step in doing that, he said, is to open up a small fraction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--1.5 million acres--to "environmentally responsible" oil drilling. He said he would also order a review of what other restricted federal lands might be opened to drilling for oil and gas.

The refuge in Alaska is 19 million acres of pristine land that stands as one of America's last undisturbed ecosystems and is home to abundant wildlife, including polar bears, grizzlies, horned Dall sheep, wolves and moose.

Under Bush's proposal, the royalties that energy companies pay the government for the right to draw oil or gas from the refuge would be channeled into wilderness conservation programs.

"The vice president says he would rather protect this refuge than gain the energy, but this is a false choice," Bush said. "We can do both, taking out energy and leaving only footprints."

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