Candidates focus on high prices at pump

The political theater at the gas pumps in this Raleigh suburb quickly evolved into a shouting match.

Democratic Congressman Bob Etheridge was trying to talk to a small group several days ago about his bill to curb energy market manipulation. His Republican challenger, Dan Mansell, kept interrupting, saying more drilling and more oil refineries – not more regulation – were needed.

“I'm sorry he is such an angry young man,” Etheridge told a handful of people at the T.R. Lee Gas Station, which has been a Main Street landmark in Clayton since 1956.

“I'm angry about the energy costs,” shot back Mansell, who is 52.

Gas stations have replaced barbecue joints on the political circuit. With gas prices rising above $4 per gallon in many places, political candidates are scrambling to show voters that they feel their pain at the pump. There are calls for investigations, offshore drilling, new mileage standards, tax breaks for hybrids, and federal gas-tax holidays.

Candidates from the two parties have offered markedly different responses.

Republican candidates, including presidential hopeful John McCain, N.C. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and GOP gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, are calling for the end of the 27-year ban on oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic Coast, including North Carolina. On Thursday, the state Senate released a statement calling for offshore drilling.

Democrats, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, U.S. Senate candidate Kay Hagan, and gubernatorial candidate Beverly Perdue oppose offshore oil drilling.

Ken Medlock, an economist and energy expert at Rice University in Houston, said the political debate is misinformed.

Medlock said it would be years before offshore drilling would cut prices at the pump and said critics exaggerate the environmental risks of drilling. He cited studies showing that offshore platforms were far safer than the oil tankers now being used to transport oil.

“The only thing we can do is change our own habits,” Medlock said. “Conservation is the most powerful tool we have for the long term.”

North Carolinians support offshore drilling by more than a 2-1 majority, according a poll conducted last week by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh polling firm with Democratic ties. The survey found that 54 percent support drilling, 26 percent oppose it, and 20 percent are not certain. Other polls have shown even greater support. National polls show similar results.