Soaring oil prices largely falling flat as campaign issue

Bush urges more US production; Kerry seeks lower consumption

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Charlie Savage
Globe Staff / August 28, 2004

SILVER SPRING, Md. -- Alan Goldstein pulled his silver BMW Z3 up to a Crown gas station here and filled the tank for $22.40 -- nearly twice what he paid a few years ago.

A 52-year-old photographer, Goldstein supports conservation and alternative energy sources. But although he thinks he'll vote for John F. Kerry, Goldstein doesn't see how the presidential election will have much impact on the cost of driving around.

''Kerry has not articulated a position" on energy policy ''that is radically different from President Bush," Goldstein said.

Both candidates might wince to hear that. As the price of oil has soared above $40 a barrel, each has been giving more time in his stump speeches to how he would seek to ensure adequate supplies and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Bush talks about increasing domestic production, calling on Congress to pass his stalled energy bill and open the Alaska wilderness to drilling. Kerry talks of reducing consumption, primarily through tax incentives to help automakers build factories to produce more fuel-efficient cars.

Yet even as consumers have been hammered at the pump, the issue has not made a dent in polls. While about 50 percent of Americans now say their family is feeling the pinch from higher gas prices, few seem to direct that anger at the presidential campaign.

''Even if Kerry has a pretty detailed energy plan and people are on vacation noting that gas prices are higher, this election still has only three issues on the map at this point: terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the economy," said Karlyn Bowman, a polling specialist at the American Enterprise Institute.

Seeking to change that, Kerry has sought to connect the high price of oil to the military chaos in Iraq, anxiety about Saudi Arabia, and a need to keep auto manufacturing jobs in the United States.

''That's what I want to talk about today -- how we can make our country stronger and safer by working together to build an energy-independent America," Kerry said in Missouri this month. ''We can control our own destiny; we can create the jobs of tomorrow; and we can make sure that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to our dependence on oil from the Middle East."

Bush, too, has sought to connect his energy package to top-tier issues, though he has focused more intently on the jobs creation portion. At a campaign rally this month in Chippewa Falls, Wis., Bush said, ''To make sure jobs are here, we need a national energy policy that makes us less dependent on foreign sources of energy."

Many economists say neither candidate's proposals will quickly reduce prices, as oil trades in a global market. Kerry and Bush each call for new ways to increase the supply and decrease demand for energy. The difference is one of emphasis.

For Kerry, reducing demand and finding alternative sources of energy over time are the primary goals. He has proposed $10 billion to build ''clean coal" electrical plants, which reduce air pollution. Bush has proposed a fifth of that amount.

Kerry would also give $10 billion of tax incentives to the auto industry to help convert its plants to build more fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrids. Bush's energy bill has a small tax credit aimed at consumers who buy such vehicles.

And Kerry has proposed $5 billion for hydrogen fuel cell research. Bush's proposal is $1.7 billion.

The Republican energy bill pushed by Bush, meanwhile, is heavily weighted toward increasing production. It would finance a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the continental United States and build a nuclear power plant in Idaho. It would also provide billions in tax credits to encourage oil and gas exploration -- an emphasis that stands in stark contrast to the Kerry plan.

Kerry has long been a vocal opponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Bush supports.

Bush is vulnerable in polls on environmental issues, and advocating drilling will only remind voters of the administration's efforts to relax environmental protections. Yet voters have never been keen on conservation when it affects their lifestyle.

Chuck Porcari of the League of Conservation Voters suggested Kerry's push to make hybrid cars more affordable may make conservation more palatable because even giant SUVs can be made with the fuel-efficient engines. ''The question goes away that somehow energy independence is going to dictate lifestyle changes," he said.

Charli Coon, senior policy analyst for energy issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the left's portrait of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as retrograde oilmen is ''unfair and biased" because the energy bill contains subsidies for many forms of energy, including wind and solar.

What's important, she said, is that the population is rising, consumers will buy what they want, and it will take many years for the current fleet of cars to be replaced. So sooner or later the country will have to drill in places that are now off limits.

''Someone has to be pragmatic about this and make some tough decisions," she said.

Charlie Savage can be reached at Globe correspondent Jessica E. Vascellaro contributed to this report.

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