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Bush, Kerry using gasoline to help fuel their campaigns

WASHINGTON - Starting with President Bush and John Kerry, politicians of all stripes are pointing fingers and offering solutions for what they repeatedly claim are "historically high" gasoline prices.

Bush accuses Kerry of backing a 50-cent hike in the federal gasoline tax, which the Democratic presidential candidate did support a decade ago but now repudiates. Bush also blames Democratic lawmakers for blocking his "comprehensive energy plan" to spur oil production.

Kerry accuses Bush, a former Texas oilman, of paying off oil companies for their campaign contributions by backing policies to boost industry profits.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have pushed an energy package through the House. Senate Democrats who have stopped similar legislation before - saying it harms the environment and rewards Big Oil - are widely expected to do so again.

"With gasoline prices at $2 per gallon, it's time to allow some drilling," said Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican.

While Senate Democrats oppose the Republican energy bill, some of them are urging Bush to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve set up after the 1973 energy crisis, even though few economists think that step would significantly reduce gasoline prices.

Other senators push legislation that would penalize "the OPEC oil-producing cartel," a venerable whipping boy of American politicians.

News outlets have fanned the flames for months with endless articles and broadcasts about reputed record prices. Gasoline prices have eased a bit in recent weeks, from a peak of $2.07, but analysts don't expect a substantial decrease in the coming summer months.

There's only one problem with all the demagogic hue and cry: When adjusted for inflation, gasoline prices are nowhere near historic highs.

And despite price increases of 40 cents a gallon or more this year, Americans are still paying half or less at the pump of what drivers in most other countries pay, with foreign costs ranging up to the $6-per-gallon price tag in Britain.

And while they complain about high pump prices, Americans have pushed sales of gas-guzzling SUVs, Hummers and light trucks to levels that actually are at record highs.

Larry Goulder, a Stanford University professor, said the true costs of the country's driving-dominated culture are hidden, and that Americans actually pay much more for gasoline than the price they see at the pump.

Among the hidden costs he cited are military expenses of protecting Persian Gulf and other oil supplies; heath-care expenses to treat asthma, cancer and other diseases tied to automobile emissions; and expenses to prevent or repair related environmental damage.

Richard Heinberg, author of a 2003 book on the depletion of world oil reserves, said politicians seeking public office in the United States can't disclose the true cost of gasoline because Americans wouldn't accept it.

"I don't think any candidate can tell the truth," he said. "It's terrible, but the American people have come to think of cheap energy as their birthright. And woe to the messenger who tells them otherwise."

Bush and Kerry, who last month offered dueling radio speeches on high gasoline prices, both preach the need for "energy independence." Exxon Mobil chairman Lee Raymond, noting that foreign imports make up about half of U.S. oil consumption, dismissed that goal as a "myth" - now, and for decades to come.

Bush and Kerry offer very different approaches to decreasing American reliance on foreign oil. Noting that no new refinery has been built in the United States since 1976, Bush wants to ease environmental restrictions and provide tax incentives to expand domestic refinery production, and he backs allowing new drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The senator from Massachusetts advocates increased funding of technologies to develop alternative fuels and make more fuel-efficient vehicles, along with tax credits to lower their costs.

Neither of the approaches, in the view of most economists, would have much effect on gasoline prices, at least in the foreseeable future. In fact, experts say the recent spike has a range of causes that are mostly beyond a president's control - from escalating demand in India and China to terrorist attacks on oil facilities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The current histrionics over gasoline prices are hardly the first time the issue has intruded on presidential election campaigns.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ridiculed Jimmy Carter's admonition to Americans to set their thermostats higher in order to conserve energy and his warning that world oil reserves could run out by century's end.

As part of his anti-tax drive during his successful White House run, Reagan also rejected independent candidate John Anderson's proposed 50-cent gasoline tax hike.

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