Clinton driven to oil sell-off

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The Independent Online
He may be riding sky-high in the polls, with his demoralised Republican opponents nowhere to be seen. But there is one risk President Bill Clinton dare not take in an election year - to interfere with the God-given right of Americans to drive big cars powered by the cheapest petrol on earth.

Hence this week's unusual decision: to sell 12 million barrels from the US strategic petroleum reserve. The amount may be a drop in the ocean of US oil consumption but the gesture is intended to signal the deepest White House concern at the recent rise in the cost of petrol, which has driven up pump prices by more than 20 per cent in many states.

The increase will hardly bring tears to the rest of the world's eyes. In Washington DC, for instance, ordinary grade petrol still only costs $1.29 (84p) a gallon, and even in California, where special factors have pushed up the price of premium grade to some $2 (pounds 1.33), that is still a fraction of the pounds 2.65 ($4) paid in England for the admittedly slightly larger imperial gallon - not to mention $4.50 in Sweden and almost $5 in Italy.

That, however, overlooks the politics of the matter. In the land where the car is an object of veneration only outstripped by the Almighty, the peak summer driving season is fast approaching when Americans will feel the pain directly in their pockets. More important still, California - where complaints are fiercest - also happens to carry 54 electoral college votes, a fifth of the total needed to win the presidential contest this November.

President Clinton therefore cannot stand idly by, especially when he raised petrol prices by 4.3 cents a gallon in his 1993 deficit reduction package, which every Republican in Congress voted against. Scrambling for means of reducing the President's lead in the polls (an unprecedented 58 per cent to 37 per cent in the latest USA Today/CNN poll), Senator Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee, has demanded Congress scrap the tax increase. An uneasy White House has opted to sell oil from the strategic reserve instead.

In fact, industry experts point out, the move will have virtually no practical effect. The amount involved is less than a single day of US refinery consumption, while after the lifting of speed restrictions last year, Americans are driving faster, with the fashion now for jeeps and utility vehicles - "gas-guzzlers" which get 15 miles or less per gallon.