WASHINGTON -- While locked in a string of disputes with the Clinton administration, the oil industry has pumped more than $1.5 million into George W. Bush's campaign. Oil companies will be seeking Bush's help on a range of issues, should he be elected president.
Recent high gasoline prices have brought energy policy into the campaign as Democratic presidential contender and Vice President Al Gore tries to tar Bush, the Republican governor of Texas, as a pawn of Big Oil. Bush, a former oilman from Midland, Texas, says it isn't so.
But across a range of issues -- from drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge to new rules setting the price of oil taken from federal land to whether to pursue a controversial international agreement on climate control -- oil-company executives believe a Bush administration would be more receptive to their objectives.
In fact, the industry's relationship with the Clinton administration -- and Gore himself -- has often bordered on hostile. The industry has contributed less than $100,000 to Gore's campaign. Last week, Gore said the nation was "vulnerable to big oil interests trampling on the public interest."
The top priority of oil lobbyists for years has been to open the coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska to drilling. The government says 10 billion barrels of oil likely could be pumped from beneath the coastal plain, which environmentalists view as an ecological sanctuary.
Congress once approved such drilling, but Clinton blocked it. Gore has promised, "I will never agree to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife, never."
But Bush views drilling there as a cornerstone of his goal to reduce America's reliance on foreign oil. "We need to increase domestic exploration," said Bush campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett.
While drilling in the Arctic refuge would be the biggest plum the oil companies could expect from a Bush administration, the industry would likely prevail on other issues.
The Kyoto Accord
Environmentalists say U.S. acceptance of the agreement, which requires reductions of heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases to address global warming, would be dead if Bush becomes president. Bush has called it "ineffective" and unfair and would not seek its ratification.
Oil companies have led the fight against the agreement, which Gore was instrumental in crafting at a meeting in Japan more than two years ago. Should the pact be ratified, it would require reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, principally oil and coal.
Sulfur in gasoline
For months, oil-company lobbyists have argued unsuccessfully with the Environmental Protection Agency over the reduction of sulfur in gasoline and diesel fuel. The EPA has sided with the auto industry and environmentalists and called for almost eliminating sulfur in these fuels. The EPA wants sulfur cut to 30 parts per million in gasoline and 15 parts per million in diesel, more than a 95 percent reduction. The oil companies have offered a cut to 50 parts per million -- a level EPA Administrator Carol Browner has insisted would not do the job.
On such regulations Bush "wants to strike the appropriate balance" and be assured "they are based on the most sound and available science," said Bartlett. Bush has said he wants to reduce the sulfur in motor fuels.
Valuing the government's oil
The industry has been at loggerheads with the administration over royalty payments to the government for oil taken from federal land. Over strong objections from the industry and oil-state lawmakers, led by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the Interior Department is changing the way it values the oil, contending the government has been cheated out of millions of dollars over the years.
Oil-company supporters in Congress, who view the change as a new tax on the industry, have been trying to postpone the new rules until after the election, confident Bush would be more receptive to industry interests. Bush has not addressed the issue.
Apart from the Arctic refuge, the industry believes Bush also might be more receptive than Clinton has been to developing oil and gas reserves on federal land in mountain areas of the West and in some offshore areas. The Interior Department has put many of those reserves off limits.
Like Gore, Bush has said he wants to continue the moratorium that generally bars exploration and drilling in U.S. coastal waters outside of the central and western Gulf of Mexico.
But while Gore has promised a blanket ban on drilling off California on a number of existing oil leases, Bush has reserved judgment. Bartlett said he would review them on a case-by-case basis.
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