WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Bill Richardson today welcomed word that Iran will go along with increased oil production and said he is not concerned that Iraq could cause a snag when oil-exporting countries meet later this month.
Richardson said he remains optimistic that the producing nations will increase output to stabilize world prices and that he expects additional production to lower U.S. prices within a month of action by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Richardson was asked for an update on the world oil situation as he began testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman, said he is concerned about a forecast of gasoline prices soaring to $2 a gallon by summer.
''Our hope is there will be (price) stability shortly after (the increased production) moves into the market,'' Richardson said.
Some lawmakers are proposing that a 1993 gas tax of 4.3 cents a gallon be lifted temporarily to ease the burden of motorists having to cope with soaring gasoline prices this summer.
House and Senate tax writing committees were cool to the idea, but a number of Republican senators said the proposal might gain momentum if prices at the pump, now at more than $1.50 a gallon in many places, continue to climb.
''We've got to take down the price of gas this summer,'' said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, suggesting one way to help do that was suspending the 1993 excise tax.
And the tax could become an issue in the presidential campaign.
Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., said Wednesday that the tax was imposed in 1993 when the Democrats held a majority with solid GOP opposition, and he made a point to say that Vice President Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote.
''That was (the administration's) energy policy,'' Nickles said. But some Republican lawmakers also questioned whether tampering with the federal gas excise tax might be an overreaction, especially if it gets reimposed once gas prices decline.
''I am for tax reduction whenever you can put them on the books. I'm a little concerned when we say we're going to do it, then we're going to take it back,'' said Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which considers tax legislation.
And Archer questioned how much good a 4.3 cent difference would make when gasoline -- as some predict -- hits $2 a gallon during the peak driving period this summer.
Sen. William Roth, R-Del., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has not made a decision and will discuss the proposal with other lawmakers in the coming days, an aide to the senator said Wednesday.
While it might be politically attractive, such a tax cut, even if temporary, also would take billions of dollars away from the federal trust fund for highway construction, something that does not set well with lawmakers planning the transportation budget, nor the powerful highway lobby.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, another senator favoring the idea, said lost revenue could be made up later when gas prices go down.
Meanwhile, Murkowski on Wednesday used the brouhaha over high oil and gasoline prices to once again push legislation that would open up an environmentally sensitive Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling.
He long has argued that drilling could be conducted on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska without harming wildlife or the area's ecology. His bill was introduced with 31 Senate sponsors, but its chances of becoming law this year are slim.
President Clinton previously has vetoed legislation to drill for oil in the refuge.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt quickly issued a statement saying he strongly opposed oil development in the refuge and that Clinton again would veto such legislation.
The high cost of fuel is no joke to farmers, who are also facing low prices for corn and soybeans as they prepare for spring planting.
''It will cost us more per acre to put the crop out this spring, and we'll have to wait to see what happens this fall,'' said Pete Hazel, who farms 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans near the north-central Ohio community of Wakeman.
Last year, U.S. farmers spent about $6.5 billion for fuel and oil, said Terry Francl, senior economist with the Chicago-based American Farm Bureau.
If fuel prices remain at current levels, the cost will probably increase to $8 billion this year, he said. And it could jump by another $3 billion next year.
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