Pulitzer Prize winner David Shribman is known for his
astute assessment of national politics as well as the
political scene throughout the country. His outside-the-Beltway
reporting takes him to cities and towns around the U.S.,
where he has the enviable ability to assess political
COMING OF WINTER HEATS UP ENERGY POLITICS
Maine -- 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.
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.
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.
in northern New England, the most persuasive political
handbill of the season might be the home heating bill.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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 -- resulting in rising
home heating costs that will hit home in Maine and New
Hampshire just around Election Day.
and Gore came into office with tremendous advantages --
notably, the international good will generated by America's
liberation of Kuwait under President George Bush and Defense
Secretary Dick Cheney," said Jim Nicholson, chairman
of the Republican National Committee. "Over the years,
they frittered away that good will -- to the detriment
of American consumers. So now, when oil-producing nations
are deliberately keeping output low to push prices higher,
Clinton and Gore have no authority, no influence, no power
to convince oil producers to treat American consumers
with the respect they deserve."
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