Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on Friday announced the government will release up to 30 million barrels from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve to stem rising prices and buttress shrinking domestic stockpiles of heating oil and gasoline.
The move -- preceded by Vice President Gore's call on Thursday for the selling of part of the reserve -- drew catcalls from Republicans, who called it a desperate device to help elect Gore president.
Gore's Republican opponent for the White House, George W. Bush, said in a campaign appearance in Florida that the government reserve "is meant for a national emergency, a national war, a major disruption of supply" and not to influence the market.
"The Strategic Petroleum Reserve should not be used as a short-term political fix for somebody whose administration has been asleep at the switch," said Bush, the Texas governor and a former oilman.
Gasoline prices have moderated, perhaps temporarily, because of speculation preceding the announcement that the Clinton administration would tap the reserve.
But experts said the decision is unlikely to have any effect on home heating oil prices -- which are setting records weekly -- before Election Day on Nov. 7 because it takes nearly three months for heating oil prices to reflect changes in supplies.
Sales from the reserves, stored in salt caves along the Gulf of Mexico coast, won't start until October.
The non-partisan American Automobile Association reacted coolly, saying the action "is not a silver bullet for achieving stable gas prices."
AAA public relations director Mantill Williams said the nation instead "needs a long-term solution to the 20-year historic lows of domestic oil inventories."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said "Bill Clinton and Al Gore deserve credit for standing up to the oil industry, facing down the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and stepping in to protect our economy and families who will face sky high heating oil costs."
Schumer did not mention that he began urging Clinton to take this action a year ago, and a dozen times since.
Richardson's announcement came a year to the day after White House officials said release of any part of the government's 570 million barrel reserve bordered on illegality.
The 1975 law creating the reserve said its stores could only be put on the market in case of a serious disruption of supplies or a national emergency.
Daniel Yergin, widely-recognized authority on petroleum supplies, said the term emergency means, "a major disruption which can also be a threat to our gross domestic product. The question now is, are we seeing high oil prices that could bring our great American boom to an end?"
The Republican chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Alaska's Frank H. Murkowski, called Richardson's decision a "Rip Van Winkle" political ploy.
"This administration has been napping for seven and a half years," Murkowski said. "Now that the alarm is going off, they decided to hit the snooze button rather than get up and go to work on the problem of the lowest levels of domestic oil production ever, and the highest levels of imports in history."
At a press conference, Richardson said, "Earlier today, President Clinton directed me to exchange 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over a period of 30 days.
"The president's reasons for taking this action are very clear: Portland, Maine, will be in the 50s next week. So will Minneapolis. And it snowed in the Rockies yesterday. We need to make sure that American families keep warm this winter and get their heating oil."
"Today, distillate inventories across the country, which includes heating oil, are 19 percent lower than they were a year ago.
"On the East Coast, where 36 percent of families use heating oil to stay warm, distillate inventories are lower still, 40 percent less than last year's levels. In New England, this figure is closer to 65 percent lower than last year."
"This is not political," Richardson said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson said, "Now Bill Clinton is . . . giving Al Gore his biggest campaign contribution to date: a precious, public, taxpayer-funded resource."
The oil sale will have its strongest political pull in the Northeastern quarter of the nation, which is the most heavily dependent on oil for heat. A number of Northeastern Republicans, including Maine's Sen. Susan Collins, joined Schumer in his call for releases from the petroleum reserve.
The rest of the nation depends mostly on natural gas for heating, Murkowski said. "Natural gas supplies are lower than fuel oil and prices are even higher.
"What will the administration answer be . . . when they realize that natural gas supplies can't come from OPEC?"
In Western New York, the average price of regular gasoline is $1.59 -- a dime higher than a month ago, and 26 cents higher than a year ago. Gasoline prices in the Buffalo-Niagara region are 3 to 5 cents higher than the national average.
Part of this is driven by the state and local taxes imposed on gasoline, according to Carolyn Harding, spokeswoman for AAA of Western and Central New York.
She said state and federal taxes are 40 cents a gallon, and the 8 percent sales Erie County tax adds between 8 to 12 cents more, depending on the base pump price of the gasoline.