The Three Faces Of Al Gore

29 September 2000

By Stentor Danielson

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has given Vice President Al Gore a case of schizophrenia. By sticking to their production quotas, oil-producing nations have driven up petroleum prices. The cramp this put in the wallets of the American public forced Gore to reconsider his once glib support for higher gas prices and lower consumption to reduce pollution.

Last week, Gore made his choice. Placing his commitment to helping "working" or "middle-class" families over his commitment to the environment, he advised President Clinton to make his announcement on Friday that 30 million barrels of oil would be released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next 30 days to offset high prices and low supplies. But the wrong side of Gore won this round.

Populist Al, the personality Gore unveiled in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, will be happy with the decision. The rhetoric behind the release of oil is low heating oil supplies for the Northeast (coincidentally a region key to a Gore victory in November) as winter approaches. Populist Al is looking out for the little guy who would have trouble affording to heat his home this winter, or drive to work.

The move also reinforces Populist Al's message of being for "the people, not the powerful." One of his favorite members of "the powerful" is "big oil," which we would assume is profiting from high prices. Gore's opponents, Republican nominee George W. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney, have helped him paint them as evil oil barons by opposing the decision to tap the reserve.

But where does this leave Environment Al, the author of 1992's Earth In The Balance? When oil prices were low, Environment Al lamented how easy it was to buy and burn polluting fuels. Environment Al would listen to the complaints, and then say, "you should've thought of that before you bought your SUV."

Environment Al would tell us that the only real solution is to develop a program that provides resources and incentives to promote alternate energy sources so that OPEC can't gouge us anymore and we stop polluting our air. Clinton paid lip service to these ideas in his announcement of the petroleum release. But the only concrete action was the short-term band-aid of 30 million barrels of oil.

Bush and Cheney were quick to point out that "Clinton/Gore" does not have an energy policy. However, this would be a much more valid criticism if it were coming from a ticket that could show us that, in contrast, it did have an energy policy. So far, all the Republican candidates can think of is drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily, Environment Al still has enough clout to reject that proposal.

There's a third person in Gore's head: Intelligent Al. Intelligent Al is the fierce debater and unabashed wonk, who loves nothing more than a 200-page policy manual. Intelligent Al most of all should see what's wrong with using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to cushion America from the harsh realities of the world oil market.

Optimistic predictions indicate that the oil Clinton released might shave ten percent off the price of oil. Ten percent adds up if you're a big oil company processing thousands of barrels. Intelligent Al should realize that the oil in the reserve is crude oil, not ready-to-use gasoline or heating oil. So whatever oil is taken from the reserve has to go through big oil's refineries, most of which are already operating at capacity. If the release does have an impact on prices for the little guy, it will only blunt popular anger at oil suppliers, hurting Populist Al's message.

Intelligent Al should also realize that 30 million barrels does not make us independent of OPEC for our energy needs. Clinton's proposal will take effect over 30 days, which works out to one million barrels a day. Contrast this fact with the average of nine million barrels that the United States imports every day.

OPEC drove up prices for a reason. Having seen the huge benefits to their countries of high oil prices, it would be a piece of cake for OPEC to convince its members to chop a million barrels a day out of its supply lines, or at least hold steady in the face of international pressure to increase supply. Then we would be back where we started price-wise, but with a few million barrels less in the reserve. This is the argument that Intelligent Al made when tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was first suggested.

Gore has embarrassed his opponents since the Convention by mapping out in excruciating detail the specifics of his policy proposals, most notably on health care. If he wishes to deflect criticism from Bush and Cheney, Populist Al, Environment Al, and especially Intelligent Al need to get together and come up with a coherent energy policy.

There is no better time than the present to preach a message -- or perhaps he should call it a "vision" -- of making America independent of OPEC, and indeed of fossil fuels altogether. He can tell "working" and "middle class" families that not only is oil bad for the air and bad for the planet's temperature (as he's said all along), but it can also be expensive. He can use high fuel prices as an incentive to promote stricter fuel efficiency standards and development of sustainable energy sources.

This may be painful for some. Gore shouldn't rule out direct monetary assistance if the oil market leaves some sector of the population unable to heat their homes no matter how much they scrimp and save. But in a democracy, the government will only give the people something if they ask for it. If our elected officials continue to offer band-aids and shift the blame to OPEC, Americans will never feel the pain of not having a long-term energy policy. So they will never demand one.

The country's economic success gives Gore breathing room for proposing a vision for the future. People are secure enough, and feel good enough about the nation, that they don't need to be pampered with quick fixes. But to take advantage of the situation Gore needs to get his personalities, his different messages, to come together and work out a plan.

Gore told us that "I will work for the day when we are free forever of the dominance of big oil and foreign oil." Tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve will do nothing to make that day come sooner, and some of the Al Gores know it.

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