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The high price of playing oil politics


THE STRATEGIC Petroleum Reserve was established by law in the 1970s to guarantee the nation's supply against emergency shortage.

Vice President Al Gore went to Southern Maryland Thursday to urge small releases from the reserve, which is kept in natural salt domes under the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas.

There might be legitimate reason to dip into reserves to insure heating oil supplies in New England, where the industry has allowed stocks to diminish.

But that's not what's going on. Mr. Gore is being political. What better way to boost his campaign than with action that would lead to a dip in gasoline prices in the weeks before the election?

Yesterday, Secretary of State Bill Richardson announced a modest release of oil. He said it wasn't to influence price and wasn't political. Oh, no.

A good reason not to do this was spelled out by Mr. Gore while campaigning last winter for the New Hampshire primary. He said then that it might only prompt OPEC to reduce production.

The best reason not to do it was trotted out by Gov. George W. Bush and the oil industry. They said the reserve exists by law to insure critical supplies, and is not intended as a safety valve to regulate price. Some industry analysts believe this action is too little even to reduce price, much less insure supply.

The strategic reserve should be preserved for its original purpose. Its use to help New England homeowners this winter should have been decided accordingly, and not yet. Any price spike should be dealt with by fuel funds. Despite Mr. Richardson's denial, this administration policy appears aimed at price and election.

After taking the high ground on this issue, Mr. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney descended from it by saying the government should subsidize domestic production, even by opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

That would do nothing for the problem in the time frame being addressed. It opens both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney to charges that they still promote the big oil interests they used to work for.

They should avoid that perception. Better they stick to what's wrong with the administration action, and support greater conservation in the United States and orderliness in world markets.

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