Gas Price Spike Prods Energy Debate

Posted March 9, 2011 at 6:15pm

The annual spike in gas prices triggered by the turmoil in the Middle East has started well before the summer months, forcing party leaders to begin the push for their respective energy policies months ahead of schedule.

Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (Mich.) and other top Republicans will wade into the issue today with a press conference aimed at attacking the Obama administration’s energy policies, charging they have contributed to the spike in prices.

House leadership aides acknowledge the sudden spike in prices has caught them off guard, explaining they had initially planned to begin a debate over energy policy closer to Memorial Day and the traditional start of summer vacation season.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said there have been multiple meetings this week among leadership aides and relevant committee staff to discuss various policy proposals and they plan to have another today. Senate Democrats and the White House have coordinated their work on the issue, the aide said.

Options on the table include incentives for “deployment of natural gas and electric vehicles” to help wean the country off foreign sources of oil — a measure, the aide said, that Republicans balked at when it was introduced last year.

Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said Republicans have already begun the drumbeat on the energy issue and have their plan ready.

“Our plan today is the plan that we advanced in 2008 when the last big gas price increase [occurred], which if it had been adopted would be helping gas prices today,” Alexander said. “We said, ‘Find more, use less.’”

Alexander said the GOP Conference would continue to push for more offshore exploration for natural gas and oil, the construction of new nuclear plants, the use of electric cars and the development of clean energy.

“We think that rising gas prices along with all the new regulations coming out over the next year are going to throw a big wet blanket on our economic recovery and what we need to do about it is to find more American oil and that means go offshore, go to federal lands, go to Alaska,” he said.

The Senate GOP Policy Committee circulated an energy fact sheet stressing how the Obama administration’s policies have caused gas prices to increase and worsened the country’s dependence on foreign sources of oil.

Individual Senators have also renewed their push for their own energy-related bills.

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said the sudden spike made it imperative that drilling be allowed to continue off the Gulf Coast. Permits for deep-water drilling have been restricted since the massive BP oil spill last year.

The two Senators said their legislation, which would allow the companies with drilling leases affected by last year’s moratorium to have them extended an extra 12 months, would help alleviate the cost of fuel in the long run.

“We have got to get our Gulf of Mexico back to work, particularly because of the turmoil going on in the Middle East, it’s time for America to produce more of its own domestic resources,” Landrieu said during a Wednesday press conference.

“The average price of gasoline in America today is $3.52,” Hutchison said. “I know that Americans who need their cars or are trying to plan a family vacation are going to be strapped. We can open up the Gulf of Mexico in an environmentally secure way and a responsible way if we can get these rigs back to work.”

House Republicans, meanwhile, hoping to recapture the political magic from the 2008 gas price spikes, are also ramping up their efforts on the energy front.

House aides said they welcome the debate.

In talking points circulated to rank-and-file Members this week, Republican leaders look to resurrect their successful “all of the above” call for a broad approach to energy issues rather than just attacking short-term price changes.

Likewise, Democrats have also begun to take up the issue.

Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop (N.Y.), Jerry McNerney (Calif.), Tim Walz (Minn.) and Mike McIntyre (N.C.) introduced legislation this week that would crack down on price-gouging. That bill, Bishop said, would help provide more immediate relief to consumers than anything Republicans have talked about.

“There’s no supply shortage. Price is rising based on fear,” Bishop said, pointing to the crisis in Libya and other parts of the Middle East as key factors. Bishop also criticized Republicans for not moving to address the issue sooner and argued they have taken steps to protect oil company profits at the expense of taxpayers.

“It’s absolutely shocking we’re engaged in a debate about reducing the deficit and yet the Republicans leave as untouchable” oil industry tax breaks, Bishop said.

Republicans dismiss Democratic complaints and say they have already begun putting together a legislative strategy for addressing the issue.

A leadership aide said Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) would likely make room on the calendar to take up energy legislation before the end of the month, although what specific bills would be considered had not yet been decided.