Not all campaigns pouring energy into the energy crisis

In Sen. Susan Collins’s hometown of Caribou, Maine, just 13 miles from the Canadian border, January temperatures average between zero and 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Last year, the average price of a gallon of home heating oil in Maine was $2.26 a gallon. By January of this year, it had risen to $3.35.

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Maine has little access to natural gas, so its residents generally rely on heating oil to get through the notoriously brutal winters. This year’s spikes in oil costs have many worrying, even during the heart of summer, about getting through the winter.

The latest figures from the governor’s office, released this past Monday, estimated the average statewide cost at $4.62 a gallon.

And homeowners are feeling the crunch.

“Some are still paying the bill for last year and don’t know how they’re going to pay [this year],”said Carol Andrews, spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), who is seeking to replace the Republican Collins in the Senate this fall.

Maine is just one of many places where the energy crisis has hit voters hard. But its Senate race has not been seen as a political linchpin for the energy debate in the same way Democrats are targeting 13 House districts in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) “Big Oil” ad campaign.

But in Maine — and also in Wyoming, where a spirited campaign is being waged for retiring Rep. Barbara Cubin’s (R) at-large House seat — candidates face an electorate whose daily lives are affected by fuel costs in ways that go beyond the price they pay at the gas pump. What these two races indicate is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to gauging how the energy crisis is going to affect this fall’s elections.

Maine’s palpable ties to the energy crisis would seem to offer an opening for Allen in his bid to unseat Collins, but thus far he has failed to gain traction against the incumbent on the issue.

Collins and Allen have outlined similar short- and long-term solutions to the energy crisis. Both advocate fully funding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal program that subsidizes heating oil prices. Each also recommends curbing excessive energy speculation and investing a greater amount of resources into wind power, cellulosic ethanol, and other alternative fuels.

Additionally, Collins and Allen recently joined the entire state’s congressional delegation in speaking out against President Bush’s call to lift the ban on drilling in the Gulf of Maine and have opposed opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). But they would support drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, although Collins’s support is more ardent — she was the only member of Maine’s congressional delegation who voted in favor of a 2006 bill opening up 8.3 million acres in the region.

Allen’s campaign has sought to draw a major distinction with Collins by criticizing her vote on the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which included $14.3 billion in tax breaks for oil companies.

“Tom voted against that because he knew then that Big Oil didn’t need the breaks and Mainers do,” said Andrews.

But Collins’s campaign stressed that she has since worked to roll back unnecessary tax breaks for oil companies and has pledged to continue to do so. Collins campaign spokesman Kevin Kelley added that the bill also included increases in funding for LIHEAP, and was supported by 25 Senate Democrats, including presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Dr. Charles Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, doubted that the Allen campaign could successfully tie Collins to the administration’s energy policies. He told The Hill that the two have not really staked out “cosmically differentiated positions” on energy issues. Additionally, he noted that anti-incumbent bias might not affect Collins to the same extent as other Republicans due to her perceived independence.

“[Collins is] known in Maine for being fairly level-headed, for protecting Maine’s interests, and for staying close to people,” he added.

Unlike Maine, Wyoming is a net energy producer, especially rich in natural gas reserves but also a supplier of oil, coal and even the potential for nuclear power. High gas prices have stretched the resources of consumers in Wyoming, too, but they have also allowed energy companies based in the state, which play a major role in its economy, to flourish.

“When the energy industry is booming, there are more jobs,” explained Dr. Jim King of the University of Wyoming. “You’re not going to hear candidates in Wyoming howling about high gasoline prices the same way as [they would in] Connecticut.”

Not surprisingly, the candidates currently competing for the state’s single House seat have largely refrained from hurling criticisms at “Big Oil” in articulating their energy platforms.

The two top Republicans vying in the field for the Republican primary on Aug. 19 — Cynthia Lummis and Mark Gordon — each favor expanding offshore oil drilling and opening up ANWR, while the presumptive Democratic nominee, Gary Trauner, opposes both. But all three major candidates have outlined agendas for resolving the energy crisis emphasizing the development of alternative sources of energy over short-term price relief.

“[Wyoming is] not a state that just believes we can drill our way out of these problems,” Lummis told The Hill. “We understand there needs to be a comprehensive solution involving a diverse energy portfolio.”

Gordon added that he would also work to upgrade the transportation grid, claiming that inefficiencies in getting gasoline to places that need it are responsible for at least some of the deficiencies in supply, which has driven up costs.

Trauner, the Democrat, envisions a more active federal role, at least in the immediate future, in the development of alternative energy sources than either of his two possible Republican opponents. He has called for “an Apollo-type mission” involving extensive federal investment in new fuel technologies.

But while the particulars of the three candidates’ energy plans may diverge, all are tailored to the social and economic characteristics of the candidates’ home state.

“Wyoming is one of the leading energy states in the nation, and [Trauner] believes it should be ground zero for the future energy technologies, supplies and expertise that will keep America’s leadership place in the world,” Trauner spokesman Adam Luff told The Hill.

Lummis explained that her proposals stemmed from the need to satisfy an electorate that she called “more informed” than voters elsewhere: “Energy issues just play differently here.”