Think a single Vermont politician or party has the answer to rising gas and home heating prices? Think again. But anyone who's pulled up to the pump recently sure wants something to be done, by somebody.
Americans figure that, because we have big guns in the Middle East, we command some respect there. But, as The New York Times reported over the weekend, the Saudis determine oil prices, not Americans. Concerned about the political and financial implications of continued high gas prices, the Saudis are considering pumping out another half-million barrels of oil daily - to an all-time record of 10 million barrels a day. News of the increased output hit Wall Street Friday and the price of oil dropped nearly $2 a barrel that afternoon - to just under $135.
A slightly steeper drop occurred last month, the day after a bill championed by freshman Democrat Rep. Peter Welch became law. His bill will stop the Bush administration from buying oil (at exorbitant prices) and putting it in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. When Pres. George W. Bush's Energy Department said it would stop filling the SPR, the price of oil dropped about $5 a barrel, though it then climbed right back up. Welch's measure takes effect July 1, because the feds had contracts to buy oil through June 30. Some experts predict oil redirected from the SPR could lower the price of gas by 5 to 20 cents a gallon, but with a weak U.S. dollar and the Saudis calling the shots, it's anyone's guess what the impact will be.
"The SPR legislation is very modest in what it can achieve," Welch told "Fair Game." "But it does represent the first time that Congress has acted on these oil prices. For years, Congress has had its head in the sand."
That's an apt image: Some lawmakers cling to the notion that we can drill our way out of this mess. If so, why aren't oil companies boring into some of the nearly 68 million acres of land they currently lease from taxpayers?
Welch also sponsored a measure tucked into the 2008 Farm Bill that closes the so-called "Enron loophole," which allowed energy speculators to avoid scrutiny by U.S. regulators. The original loophole was championed by GOP Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas - whose wife served on Enron's board at the time - and was signed into law by Democrat Pres. Bill Clinton. Today Gramm is one of Sen. John McCain's top economic advisors.
What's happening now is not a result of supply and demand, according to Matt Cota of the Vermont Fuel Oil Dealers Association. The real problem is market manipulation. "The giant hedge funds and investment banks like Goldman Sachs keep finding different ways to screw Main Street," said Cota.
As with the tech and home-mortgage bubble bursts in recent years, Cota surmised, the end of oil speculation will come with a messy pop - even if a Democrat is in the White House. "What happens at a bar or a casino when they announce last call? Do people get up and leave? No, they order two drinks," said Cota. "That means it's probably going to get worse before it gets better, and we're likely to see a flurry of activity on the part of those manipulating the market and inaction by regulators."
That could mean $5 a gallon heating oil this winter. A chilling thought.
Douglas on the Hot Seat - Vermont made plenty of news this week in The New York Times. Columnist Bob Hebert wrote about U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' efforts to call attention to those affected by the weak economy and high gas and home heating prices. Sanders has been collecting stories from around Vermont via his website and reading them on the Senate floor.
The Grey Lady also took note of Gov. Jim Douglas' pledge to help Vermonters save on fuel prices. His gubernatorial challengers were quick to dis the plan in the Vermont media. (The Times overlooked his critics.) Democrat Gaye Symington claimed Douglas was governing via "photo opportunity" rather than leadership. Progressive Anthony Pollina criticized the guv for protecting special interests instead of those of Vermonters.
Douglas' plan would add $1 million into a fund to help low-income residents make their homes more energy-efficient, and create a revolving loan fund for people who don't qualify for state assistance. It also would promote more carpooling and provide additional spaces at park-and-ride lots, and create a website clearinghouse for winter heating assistance.
"The governor wasted a year protecting the profits of Vermont Yankee instead of finding long-term solutions to increasing energy costs," charged Pollina. "Now he wants to train people to do energy audits and consider loans for energy-efficiency improvements - ideas the legislature proposed in 2007."
Symington's response to Douglas' plan: "Vermonters are paying a high price for having a governor who hangs back and waits for a crisis to develop instead of taking action in a timely way to make progress on critical issues. His announcement today is too little, too late, and is only necessary because he has consistently had the wrong position on energy efficiency over the past several years."
The Democratic candidate for governor told "Fair Game" that too much attention is being paid to the price per gallon of gas, rather than to the overall cost of heating Vermonters' homes or fueling their cars. The same debate raged 10 years ago when the state created Efficiency Vermont to reduce power consumption.
"As governor I will not be promising to lower the price of gas at the pump or the price of heating oil as it drives up your driveway," said Symington, acknowledging that forces outside of Vermont largely determine prices. "But I think there is an enormous amount we can do if we shift our thinking away from the price we pay per unit of the commodity at the door, because we have lots of control over ways to enable Vermonters to keep warm."
Douglas' spokesman Jason Gibbs said there is no telling how many homes could have been weatherized by now had lawmakers agreed to the governor's weatherization strategy in a compromise to a 2007 energy bill he vetoed. Why? Because it levied a tax on Vermont Yankee to fund energy efficiency. The Democrats didn't take him up on it.
"Revisionist history" is how Gibbs characterizes Democrats' version of events. "Their story about the energy debate in the 2007 legislative session, and their claim that their bill . . . would have in some way made the current fuel crisis more bearable is just hogwash, pure and simple." Gibbs noted the Democrats' bill wouldn't have taken effect until 2009.
Not true, say weatherization advocates. Karen Lafayette, a former Democratic lawmaker from Burlington who now lobbies for the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council, said lawmakers, not the governor, have boosted funding for the program in each of the past four years. In fact, Douglas officials told advocates only three weeks ago that the weatherization program may get $500,000 less than earmarked by the legislature due to a tight budget.
"Credit should be given where credit is due," said Lafayette. "The money that has been put into weatherization is the result of a lot of hard work by the legislature and advocates over a number of years. It's one of the most effective long-term strategies to keep people warm.
Another Doctor Is In - Mendon Rep. Harry Chen, an emergency-room doc at Rutland Regional Medical Center and vice chairman of the House Health Care Committee, is the likely Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie. Chen was on a key panel that has been working to bring health care to all Vermonters, but he's not just a one-trick pony. His district encompasses Killington, and as a result he was a sponsor of legislation in 2006 that established a special commission to negotiate the terms of Killington's secession to the Granite State. At the time, Killington leaders wanted out of Vermont due to Act 60 and its taxing provisions on so-called "property-wealthy" towns.
Chen also introduced a bill that Dubie has been touting in stump speeches - a bill that allows volunteer medical workers to learn if they had been exposed to disease through blood or other bodily fluids.
Symington welcomes Chen into the race as a running mate, and considers him a "thoughtful leader" who can talk about health care. Democrats were caught flat-footed when universal-health-care champion Dr. Deb Richter opted out of challenging Dubie a month ago.
Snow Job - Vermont had 4.3 million skier visits last winter, a 14 percent increase over the year before. You'd think the Vermont Ski Areas Association would want to shout the good news from the mountaintops. But it was off limits to a reporter at the Deerfield Valley News who accompanied Gov. Douglas to the annual meeting of the VSAA. The event was listed on the governor's official public appearances schedule. But when Christian Avard entered the room last Thursday at Mount Snow, VSAA Director Parker Riehle stopped him, saying the event was private. Avard protested but agreed to back off. Then he asked his publisher and colleagues if the exclusion sounded legit. "No" was the resounding chorus.
Gibbs, Douglas' spokesman, told "Fair Game" it was "a miscommunication between our office and VSAA. It should not have been put on the public schedule." Gibbs also apologized to Avard for the gaffe.
So, let's get this straight: The gov agreed to give a private talk to 200 ski-industry officials who get taxpayer handouts to draw skiers from Boston and New York? Good grief.
Peeling Back the Onion - It's gone from émile Zola to Albert Camus in Winooski. On Monday, the public airing of complaints against Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen entered its third week, with the chief's attorney Pietro Lynn dicing up City Manager Josh Handverger's claims of McQueen's malfeasance. Handverger admitted to Lynn he had not talked to his predecessors when investigating complaints against McQueen, That includes Mary Bushey, who works for her twin brother, Winooski city attorney William O'Brien, across the street from City Hall. Bushey, who is also Mayor Michael O'Brien's cousin, allegedly told Handverger she didn't want to get involved in his probe.
"Where's the plague?" Lynn asked of Handverger, referencing the manager's March letter that charged a "plague of criticisms" had dogged McQueen for years. Like the people of Oran in the Camus classic The Plague, Handverger may need to be quarantined after Lynn's tough cross-examination. In tense exchanges, Handverger admitted that he hadn't fully vetted some of the charges against McQueen, bolstering Lynn's portrait of him as an unfair manager hell-bent on firing McQueen based on false allegations. Handverger's attorney Joe McNeil often objected to Lynn's line of questions, exclaiming angrily at one point, "He's putting words in my client's mouth." Expect more fireworks in Winooski, and not just from the city's annual Riverwalk Celebration on June 27.