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Fuel oil prices skyrocket in frigid New Hampshire; and candidates talk tough

But congressman wonders aloud if this is a campaign issue

By Ian Christopher McCaleb, CNN

January 29, 2000
Web posted at: 6:38 p.m. EST (2338 GMT)

MILFORD, New Hampshire (CNN) - The cost of home heating oil is on a steady upward climb in the ice-glazed state of New Hampshire, leaving many low and middle-income residents in a financial lurch. Their agonizing choice? Lay out as much as 300 extra dollars this winter season to cover hikes in the price of heating oil, or keep the heat turned way down to pay for food and prescription drugs.

Thousands of New Hampshire residents are finding themselves in this listing boat this winter season, and fuel oil companies, local politicians and the campaigning presidential candidates are getting earfuls from angry state residents.

"We get all sorts of comments, some of which I canÕt repeat," says Jim Tuttle, who drives an oil delivery truck for the Lordon Oil Co., based in the southern New Hampshire town of Hollis.

"I think people are just genuinely upset, you know?" Tuttle says.

Upset indeed. "Heating oil in this state has gone up about 40 cents a gallon in the last seven days on average," Republican Representative Charles Bass, who represents the southern portion of the state in the U.S. House, told CNN in an interview Friday.

"ItÕs gone from about $1.20 a gallon, which is already 20 or 30 cents more than it was last year, to about $1.60 or $1.80 a gallon," Bass said.

Some 60 percent of the houses in this part of the country are heated with fuel oil, which must be delivered periodically by truck. Many nervous residents have found themselves pacing the floor, wondering if there is enough fuel in the supply line to make it to their basement tanks, and then worrying about how they are going to pay for their deliveries.

"There are a lot of people who are on fixed incomes, who donÕt have a lot of money, who have to make a decision," says Robert Georgini, who describes multiple lines of work, including housecleaning, personal training, and a line in gourmet cooking.

"This thing went up 60 to 70 cents (a gallon)," Georgini continues. "Where do I spend (my money)? Do I cut back on my heat, or do I have to cut back on my food?"

There is redress for some. Many of those in greatest need of financial assistance to keep their homes warm in the winter months may be eligible for the federal government-sponsored LIHEAP program, which distributes heating subsidies.

The larger problem in his state, Bass says, is the vast section of the population in the lower-middle income strata who make too much money to qualify for LIHEAP, but not enough to keep up with the exploding costs of fuel oil.

"It is going to be very hard for them," Bass said.

One thing is clear. There arenÕt enough fuel oil reserves in New Hampshire at this time to keep everyone comfortable. What isnÕt clear, is who deserves to be on the receiving end of the finger of blame.

Many of the presidential candidates addressed the issue at last WednesdayÕs CNN-sponsored Republican and Democratic debates.

"ÉI think the president ought to get on the phone with the (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) cartel and say, 'We expect you to open your spigots.' One reason why the price is so high is because the price of crude oil has been driven up," said Texas Gov. George W. Bush, when asked if the thought the Clinton Administration should release portions of the nationÕs strategic oil reserves to boost available stores.

"OPEC has gotten its supply act together, and it's driving the price, like it did in the past. And the president of the United States must jawbone OPEC members to lower the price," Bush said.

The Clinton Administration has opted to not release any of the oil reserves, arguing that they are reserved for national emergencies. The oil shortage in New England, the administration says, does not constitute such an emergency.

Democratic candidate Bill Bradley disagrees with both Bush and the Clinton White House.

"The fact is that (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) has the capacity now, in OPEC, to reduce production, which increases (the price of oil). That means that prices for New Hampshire residents for home heating oil go up," Bradley said Wednesday.

Hussein has become a favorite target of many who are seeking a reason for New HampshireÕs plight. Iraq has more pull in OPEC now than it has since the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War.

"I see there are things that an administration could do here to stop that," Bradley said. "One would be to let oil out of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That is there in order to have oil enter the market when prices go up; that'll keep prices down. The administration hasn't done that.

Bass suggests that while blaming OPEC and Iraq may be de rigeur, the anger and energy are misapplied. Rather, oil companies, refiners and local distributors should be called to account for the problem, because New Hampshire experienced a mild December.

Large supplies of fuel oil werenÕt needed because December was so warm, Bass argues, But the companies should have planned for a cold January, he said, and should not be trying to make up for loosing profits in December.

"Refineries and distributors could have predicted January would be cold," Bass said "There is much more to this than just the cartels."

"There is opportunity in the air (for them)," he said. "I believe ships all over the world are now diverting to the U.S. because of the (high) prices."

CNN's Bruce Morton and Producer Ann Curley contributed to this report.


Poll: Presidential campaign overshadows Clinton (1-26-00)

Video of New Hampshire debates (1-26-00)

Gore, Bradley spar over negative ads, health care in Manchester debate (1-26-00)

Hatch abandons presidential bid (1-26-00)

Gentility fades away as GOP candidates face one another (1-26-00)



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Saturday, January 29, 2000

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