Archive for Thursday, September 28, 2000

Oil bills will heat up as a campaign issue

September 28, 2000


— There is a chill in Echo Lake, the subtlest hint of next week's frost in the breeze. The trees are beginning to ripen with colors, one of nature's miracles, and with apples, one of humankind's delights. Winter is on the way and, like the light of morning, it will come first here, to Maine.

These ever-shortening days in this brief transition between the high life of a Maine summer and the harshness of a Maine winter are filled with three obsessions: hunting (the chase for moose opens next week), hockey (the University of Maine's Black Bears play 18 games before Christmas) and heating bills (everyone expects them to jump this year). The politicians can't do much about hunting or hockey. But they may pay the price for the heating bills.

Right now the presidential election is dark in four of the six New England states; not even the Republicans' sunniest scenario puts Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island or Connecticut in Gov. George W. Bush's column this November. Only Maine and New Hampshire are still competitive.

But in northern New England, the most persuasive political handbill of the season might be the home heating bill.

The country is reeling from high energy prices. The price of crude oil contracts on the New York futures markets actually inched above $37 a barrel this month for the first time in a decade. Natural gas prices are expected to jump by more than 25 percent; a gas shortage contributed to California's summertime power crisis and will wreak havoc with winter heating bills.

But the crisis is deepest here in New England, where many people heat their homes with oil and where consumers are bracing for prices even higher than the $2 per gallon of last winter. The pricing mechanism for home heating oil is complicated beyond comprehension; it depends on corporate decisions, which are made months in advance of the winter heating season, and on supply, which the government can control in emergencies by releasing crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves, and on international politics, which neither the Energy Department nor the State Department can fully control.

Now the politics of the situation. It's the usual game of blame, but in an election that is going to be very close where a few electoral votes one way or the other may make the difference between Al Gore sitting in the Oval Office or George W. Bush sitting there two small states with four electoral votes each aren't necessarily so small after all.

Here's how it's shaking out. The Democrats are painting themselves as the friends of the consumers (thus Gore's proposal last week to release some oil from the petroleum reserve), and they are making much of the curiosity that the Republican ticket is led by one man, Gov. Bush, who used to run an oil company, and his running mate, Dick Cheney, who resigned from his job as the chief of another oil company to be the GOP's running mate.

One line making the rounds in Democratic circles up here: The Republicans take the view that a balanced ticket is when the presidential candidate and the vice presidential candidate are from different oil companies. Or, as Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a feisty pugilist in the New England energy wars, likes to put it: "The Democratic administration is not vulnerable as long as the GOP ticket is Bush-Chevron no, I mean Bush-Cheney."

The Republicans are responding with a blame offensive of their own, arguing that the Democrats, who are willing to take credit for the economy when it is good, should shoulder responsibility for the energy situation when it is bad. They contend, moreover, that the Democrats have had two presidential terms to cobble together a coherent energy policy and have failed to do so.

Winter's coming. So is the election. Both are unavoidable. And so is the collision between politics, which is only of passing interest here, and the seasons, whose passing is of enormous interest. The hockey season opens in two weeks with two games against the Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota. The mating season for moose is approaching. And, most important, the heating bills are on their way. Presidential elections have turned on less.

David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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