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Democrats Target Administration Energy Policy : Voters Cheer Bentsen’s Fluent Oilspeak

Times Staff Writer

“Mike Dukakis will light a fire under FERC!” Lloyd Bentsen vowed Friday. Reporters looked bewildered. The crowd went wild.

Here in the Oil Patch, voters knew what the vice presidential candidate meant. In these parts the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has few friends, making it a convenient target for the Democrats, who hope to convince oil-poor voters that their fate is the Republicans’ fault.

In these parts, cheap gas is an “energy crisis,” and with the price of oil dropping to $15 a barrel, Dukakis and Bentsen hastened to adopt the phrase. They have launched a concerted effort in the region portraying themselves as friends of oil and pledging to bring “prosperity back to the Oil Patch.”

“George Bush is an oil man,” Bentsen said at rallies here and in Lubbock and Midland, Tex. “But the energy policy of this Administration is a dry hole. It’s a duster.”

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As for his GOP counterpart, Bentsen labeled Sen. Dan Quayle’s longtime support of windfall profit taxes as “disgraceful” and dredged up a 1980 newspaper article quoting Quayle has saying “anyone who gives the appearance of being on the side of the oil companies is in political trouble.”

“Did he tell you that last week?” he asked of Quayle’s recent visit to the state.

Bentsen’s comments Tuesday served to amplify on themes that he and Dukakis had introduced the day before at a forum in Houston.

There, Dukakis announced that he would seek as President to complete the deregulation of natural gas, a step advisers said would encourage further exploration of the nation’s “clean” and “abundant” gas resources. His backers noted that it would also boost support for Dukakis among gas-lands owners, many of whom capped their wells rather than sell gas at the regulated low price.

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“Will this help in Texas?” asked John Sharp of the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates the state’s oil and gas business. “You bet it will.”

Dukakis pledged also to increase government research efforts aimed at lifting more oil out of each field and to provide necessary incentives to encourage oil and gas drilling. And he said he would ask Bentsen to convene a bipartisan energy summit after the inauguration to design a “comprehensive energy policy . . . that gives producers a fair price and consumers a fair deal.”

“Our economic prosperity is at stake,” he said. “Lloyd Bentsen and I are not going to leave Oil Patch communities twisting in the wind because it doesn’t fit somebody’s economic theory.”

But as much as policy initiatives, mastery of the idiom seemed central to the bid for the oil vote.

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“We’re going to make Houston the EOR capital of the world,” Dukakis said when it came time to talk about enhanced oil recovery.

His running mate, more fluent in these matters, had preceded him with talk of “percentage depletion and intangible drilling costs,” then weighed in Tuesday with “FERC” and “stripper wells.”

Bentsen was received with enthusiasm in Oklahoma City, the depressed capital of a state where the number of working rigs has dropped from 755 to 129 since President Reagan took office, and his ode to oil formed the centerpiece of a bittersweet backdrop.

A band played, pompons waved, and balloons rose into the sky, reflected on their path by the spectacular mirrored black exterior of Leadership Square, built six years ago at the height of the oil boom. Today, realtors said, the downtown occupancy rate has dipped near 50%, and nearly half of the offices in Leadership Square are vacant.

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