WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore called Thursday for the release of millions of barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as a divided administration struggled to respond to rising global anxiety over energy costs.
"At this very moment, a decision is imminent" on whether to use the reserve, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told lawmakers in an appearance on Capitol Hill. President Clinton, who said earlier this week that he is considering whether to draw down the reserve, is expected to announce his decision as early as today.
The drama over opening up the nation's petroleum reserve for only the second time in its history comes as a surge in energy prices has cast a sudden shadow over the powerful U.S. economic expansion and flared into a heated issue on the presidential campaign trail and throughout Europe. Economists predicted Thursday that the United States and global economies are strong enough to withstand the shock of soaring fuel costs, although growth would be somewhat slower in the months ahead.
While long-term effects may prove to be limited, the pain already being felt by consumers and small businesses has ignited a political furor involving the White House, Treasury Department, Congress and the campaigns of Gore and his GOP rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Like rolling thunder on a clear day, the sudden impact of rising fuel costs has taken many analysts by surprise and altered a political debate in which the U.S. economy had seemed to have few major problems.
Campaigning in southern Maryland, Gore blasted "profiteering" by energy companies and urged the government to make perhaps 5 million barrels available at first, and more if needed.
Bush's campaign, meanwhile, quickly attacked Gore's proposal as an election-year abuse of the oil reservoir that would reduce its future effectiveness as a bulwark against supply cut-offs.
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