In an address Saturday to Pennsylvania Republicans, Gov. George W. Bush accused his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, of "misleading Americans" about Gore's role in the formation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve -- part of a larger "disturbing pattern of embellishments," Bush said.
Bush was responding to a statement Gore made Friday at an impromptu press conference in Vanport, Pa., when the vice president said, "I've been a part of the discussions on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve since the days it was first established."
Gore's statement came as the Clinton administration announced plans to release 30 million barrels of the reserve to help reduce winter heating costs, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said. The Bush campaign asserted the move was political, intended to help Gore quell rising consumer anger about high energy prices.
In his Saturday address Bush said Gore's claim to have been part of early discussions about the reserve was another Gore lie, on top of the imprecise figures he'd used at the end of August to contrast the costs of prescription drugs for his mother-in-law with those for his dog.
"Problem is," Bush told the assembled Republicans, "the reserve was first established in 1975, two years before Al Gore even went to Congress" in January 1977.
Democrats blasted back, differentiating between Congress' "authorizing" the reserve, which did indeed take place in 1975, and "the days it was first established," which they said was after Gore was sworn in as a Tennessee congressman in January 1977.
The timeline actually breaks down in a way that could keep both sides arguing for a while. In a direct response to the Arab oil embargo, Congress authorized the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in December 1975 so that the United States would have a 500 million-barrel cushion of crude oil in case supplies were cut off.
Gore was elected to the House in November 1976 and was sworn in in January 1977. Shortly thereafter he joined the House Commerce subcommittee on energy and power.
In April 1977, the government acquired the site where the oil would be temporarily stored in salt caverns.
In June 1977, before a House Commerce subcommittee on oversight, Gore grilled executives of Gulf Oil about their company's having joined a price-fixing uranium cartel, resulting in higher energy prices for American consumers, which one executive called "insignificant."
"It may appear insignificant to you," snapped Gore, according to the Washington Post. "But it was not insignificant to those TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] customers whose price of electricity was going up." Gore was quoted in Forbes deriding Gulf Oil's excuses, calling the company "a corporate Patty Hearst" and saying that a jury would find Gulf guilty of price fixing "in about 30 seconds."
In July 1977, around the time that the oil was delivered to the site, Gore voted to double the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to 1 billion barrels.
In June 1978, construction of the surface facilities of the reserve began.
Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett laughs at the Gore team's explanation of the timeline. "Yeah, the spigots started flowing after he took office, but it was established in 1975," Bartlett says. "And six sites had been selected in 1976," before Gore was elected. "They began filling literally as he took office."
Bartlett says that the greater context of Gore's remarks is significant. Despite previous entreaties against such a move, this week Gore called for "several releases of 5 million barrels each" from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
This was politics, not policy, the Bush camp claims.
"Ten months ago the president and vice president thought it was a bad idea to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve," Bush said while campaigning in Florida on Friday. "Now that we are 46 days away from the election, they've changed their minds. I agreed with them that it was a bad idea in the past and I still think it's a bad idea today. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve needs to be used in case of war and in case of major disruption of supply. This is an administration that has had no energy plan ... I believe the vice president has made this decision, with the support of the president, for short-term political gain."
Bartlett says that Gore's claim of congressional involvement was intended to show he had personal knowledge of "what the intent of creating the SPR was when it was established in 1975. The vice president said, 'I was there since it was first established,' which is not factual." Of course, Bartlett says, filling it up "didn't happen immediately; it was filled with oil over a two-year process."
The Gore camp was quick to point out that Gore hadn't, in fact, claimed to have been involved from the moment the reserve was established, but "a part of the discussions on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve since the days it was first established," which they argued was factually correct.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane pointed out that Bush had amped up his attacks in the past week. "I think it says a lot about the governor that for four or five days in a row his only message is to attack Al Gore," says Lehane. "There's a reason why his poll numbers are in decline. He cannot offer a rationale for his candidacy. For a guy who spent a year and a half talking about wanting to change the tone in Washington, he's the one changing his own tune."
Lehane went on to offer a poem about his boss's new stance on releasing some of the oil in the reserve.
"You shouldn't have to choose between heating/and eating; Bush and Cheney don't want to talk about this issue because they don't want to spoil/their big oil/connections; therefore the Republican ticket/is opposed to turning on the spigot."
Bartlett, for his part, had his own quip. Noting that it had been approximately two months since Gore's last press conference, Bartlett said, "Yesterday was a very good reason why they don't do press conferences."