Politics and oil-import fee. Even in the oil-patch, opinion is far from unanimous

In a region where the economic engines run primarily on oil, support for a fee on imported petroleum is a slick political temptation. Some candidates are leaping at the chance to fill their Southern political reserves by supporting an oil-import fee. Others are ``considering'' the fee as an option. Some are boldly opposing the measure as counterproductive to the nation's overall economic well-being.

What remains unclear is exactly how much political mileage is to be gained by advocating a tax on foreign crude. In Texas, a logical place to test the political waters, the oil-import fee does not appear to be commanding much attention.

``The oil-import fee in Texas, believe it or not, receives mixed reviews,'' says Tom Jurkovitch, Sen. Albert Gore's Texas coordinator.

The Texas oil industry is divided on the issue. The smaller, independent companies tend to support the fee, as it would raise domestic oil prices and thereby stimulate their industry. The major oil companies and the petrochemical industry, on the other hand, generally oppose the fee because it would increase costs on their foreign crude purchases.

``I don't think you can come down to the oil states and just [focus] on an import fee, without answering other concerns,'' says Gregory Curtis, editor of Texas Monthly magazine. ``It's not a one-issue campaign.''

For some in the oil patch, however, an oil-import fee is the panacea for regional revival.

``In the short term the oil-import fee is the only viable solution to the oil industry,'' says Mack Wallace, a former member of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the enormous Texas oil industry.

``From North Dakota [on] south, all these states are suffering terribly from the decline of the oil industry,'' Mr. Wallace says. The former commissioner supports Democratic candidate Richard Gephardt, who advocates an import fee.

Wallace sees the import fee as a key component of a realistic plan to revitalize the central United States.

``Why build more cars if you don't have the oil to run them on?'' he asks. The issue has a nice fit with Mr. Gephardt's message of economic nationalism. Foreign oil makes as good a villain as foreign cars.

``I think he has struck the [winning] chord ... in trying to mesh [the two issues] together,'' Wallace says of Gephardt's stance.

But not all Texans agree. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice-President George Bush are both doing very well in the state, despite their strong opposition to any tax on foreign oil.

``I just don't sense any unanimity of opinion,'' says Mr. Curtis of Texas Monthly. ``The experience of the last seven years has made [Texans] cautious. ... They've been burned once,'' he adds, referring to the boom-and-bust cycle that has devastated the oil patch. ``In the short term they would see immediate benefit ... [but] most understand we are looking at a world economy.''

Although Mr. Jurkovitch doesn't see a large ``swing'' vote pivoting on the issue, he does sense enough support to generate some votes.

``Rightly or wrongly, some folks, without really knowing how the import fee works, ... associate it as good for the oil economy and therefore Texas and `us,''' he says. ``Those who run around saying that the oil-import fee is something that we absolutely must have ignore the complexities of it as a policy matter.''

In Iowa and New Hampshire, Gephardt took a bit of a beating on the issue from Governor Dukakis, who claimed it would only raise fuel and other consumer prices for New Englanders.

On the Republican side, Mr. Bush scored points against Sen. Robert Dole in New Hampshire through a TV ad that portrayed Mr. Dole as trying to straddle the issue of an oil-import fee.

Rep. Jack Kemp joins Bush in opposing an import tax, while Dole says it ought to be considered as an option. For Bush, who is the clear Republican leader in Texas, his opposition has not been a detrimental factor.

``The fact that [Bush] is a Texan is the most prevalent issue,'' says Jim Shearer, Bush's Southwest coordinator. ``There isn't another person running for president who knows more about the oil industry than Bush. That's where he gets his bonus points.''

``It's much more a personality thing than an issue thing in Texas,'' says John Stevens, Texas coordinator for Dole. Mr. Stevens is concerned that there has not been enough time since New Hampshire for Dole to make the fee more of an issue. ``Bob Dole is the only one,'' he says, ``who has really been talking about the development of a national energy policy which will not only support the ... oil industry, but which will define how we are going to solve our energy problems in years to come.''

In a Democratic debate Sunday night in Houston, the issue received remarkably little attention. But former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart elicited a warm response when he emphatically stated his support for a $10-a-barrel import fee.

Jesse Jackson, who says he would consider a fee, broadened the debate by calling for a ``pan-American energy security alliance between Canada, North America, Mexico, Venezuela, and Ecuador.''

Illinois Sen. Paul Simon is proud of his two votes for Gary Hart's oil-import fee when Mr. Hart was in the Senate. ``The big thing is ... we have no energy policy. It's absolutely inane,'' Mr. Simon said. Simon supports more reliance on conservation and new research.

Senator Gore says an import fee must be considered as an option, a softening of his previous opposition to the tax. He was told early in the race by Texas supporters that he needed to reconsider his opposition to the fee if he wanted to appeal to the Texas electorate. He first announced his ``it's an option'' position before an AFL-CIO labor convention here last August.

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