Obama calls for tapping into strategic oil reserves

Times Staff Writers

With the politics of energy shifting as rapidly as gasoline prices, Democrats, led by presidential candidate Barack Obama, are retreating from long-held positions and scrambling to offer distressed voters more immediate relief from spiraling costs.

The change has been most striking on the campaign trail, where Obama said in a speech Monday that he would abandon his past position and support tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to quickly cut prices at the gasoline pump.

His campaign later released a statement saying that the “doubling of oil prices in the past year is a crisis for millions of Americans.”

Obama’s reversal on tapping the national stockpile of crude oil comes just days after he said, for the first time, that he would agree to some offshore drilling as part of a broader energy-policy compromise with Republicans, including John McCain, who has supported additional drilling.


Those shifts by Obama are indicative of the pressure that politicians of both parties -- but especially Democrats -- are under to develop specific, short-term energy proposals in the face of rising costs. Against that backdrop, politicians risk looking insensitive if they tout only solutions that could take years to hit the pump, such as Obama’s plan to develop hybrid cars that can travel 150 miles on a gallon of gasoline.

Republicans, too, have responded to such pressures. McCain only recently endorsed expanding offshore oil drilling, embracing a pro-production GOP principle that he had previously opposed. And in Florida, where offshore drilling has been anathema, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist has dropped his stalwart opposition to such exploration.

That jockeying reflects a shift in public opinion that has upended policy debates as gas prices have soared and the economy has soured. In California, normally a hotbed of opposition to offshore drilling, a poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 51% of respondents favoring more drilling -- up 10 percentage points since July 2007, and the first time since the question was first posed in 2003 that a majority of Californians polled said they favored offshore drilling.

“It is just a frank reality: We have to do something,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “People have had to make some drastic changes in their own life, so they are ready to see the government make some choices.”


The political scramble over energy policy has also been evident on Capitol Hill. Even though Congress is in recess for a month, Republicans have been staging a protest on the House floor to spotlight Democratic leaders’ decision to put off a vote on energy legislation until lawmakers return in September.

McCain chimed in Monday, calling for Democrats to suspend the vacation until Congress addresses the energy crisis. “Congress should come back into session,” he said during a campaign stop in Lafayette Hill, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. “I am willing to come back off the campaign trail.”

A few days ago, a bipartisan coalition of senators responded to public pressure to produce results, not just rhetoric, on rising gas prices: They endorsed a compromise that would expand availability of alternative fuels and preserve the oil-drilling ban off the West Coast while easing restrictions off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Polls show that alarm over rising fuel costs and the economic downturn are voters’ top concerns, and aides to McCain believe he is whittling into Obama’s support by highlighting their differences on how best to cut prices, conserve resources, and cut dependence on foreign oil sources. McCain is visiting the Enrico Fermi nuclear plant near Newport, Mich., today to demonstrate his support for greater reliance on nuclear-generated electrical power.


As recently as last month, Obama said that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve should not be touched except in an emergency. Now his campaign is saying that a tipping point has been reached, and he is calling for releasing light crude oil, which is easier to refine into gasoline, and replacing it later with heavier crude.

Obama’s new position is politically advantageous, with its explicit promise of short-term help at the pump. In his speech, he noted that in the past, tapping the reserve has driven down gas prices in as little as two weeks. President Clinton used a similar tactic in 2000 to make oil available at a time of rising prices.

The McCain campaign quickly pounced, calling Obama’s shift another example of his willingness to sacrifice principle for political gain.

“Tapping the strategic oil reserve is not a substitute for a real plan to increase supply through additional drilling and nuclear power,” McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said in a statement. “The strategic oil reserve exists for America’s national security strategy -- not Barack Obama’s election strategy.”


Obama’s new position aligns him with other Democratic leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent President Bush a letter last month asking him to expand oil supplies by drawing down the reserve, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has tried to get agreement on legislation requiring the release of 70 million barrels of oil from the government stockpile.

Even as he adjusts his position to account for fast-moving economic and political realities, Obama is taking the offensive. He released a campaign ad Monday criticizing McCain for accepting contributions from oil executives while supporting policies favorable to the industry.

The McCain campaign accused Obama of hypocrisy. “Not mentioned” in the ad, a McCain spokesman said in reply, is the "$400,000 from big-oil contributors that Barack Obama has already pocketed in this election.”

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, said Obama’s campaign had received about $400,000 in donations from oil and gas company executives and employees and their family members.



Nicholas reported from Lansing, Mich., and Hook from Washington. Times staff writers Bob Drogin in Lafayette Hill, Pa., and Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.