Senate candidates push gas prices to front of campaign

Coleman at printing plant
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman made a campaign stop Wednesday at Ideal Printers in St. Paul to talk about high gas prices and their impact on the economy. Coleman, a Republican, faces DFLer Al Franken in the November election.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Norm Coleman started off his energy tour at a St. Paul company called Ideal Printers. Management told Coleman business is slow.

There was no talk about the high cost of health care or the war on terrorism, nor was there talk about reforming Social Security or Medicare.

Concerned about gas prices
Jackie Ashby took a break from her work at Ideal Printers to tell Sen. Norm Coleman her 50-mile one-way drive to work is really hurting her finances because of high gas prices.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Instead, the focus was exclusively on the high cost of energy.

Jackie Ashby took a break from stacking freshly printed brochures to tell Coleman her 50-mile one-way drive to work is really hurting her finances. She wants something done about the high price of gas.

"Anything they can do to bring that cost down would sure be helpful," said Ashby. "Sometimes I feel like I'm just working to be able to pay for my gas to drive to work."

Standing on the shop floor and addressing all of the workers, Coleman said there's reason to be hopeful about the price of gas.

Coleman said members of Congress like himself who are back home for the July 4 holiday break are going to hear their constituents demand action to bring down high gas prices.

DFL candidate Al Franken
DFL Senate candidate Al Franken disagrees with Republican incumbent Norm Coleman about the value of opening more U.S. territory to offshore oil drilling. He says that action would have no impact on current high gas prices.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Coleman predicts that sentiment will be the catalyst for lawmakers to move toward allowing energy companies access to massive oil and natural gas supplies, through what's called offshore outer continental shelf drilling.

"Here's my projection. People are going to be so angry about the price of gas, and fearful about the future, that we're going to have to do all of it," Coleman said.

Coleman said opening up more areas to exploration, and moving ahead with more nuclear production and biofuels, will bring down gas prices -- even if actually deriving fuel from those sources lies a decade into the future.

"If you tell the world that we are serious about tapping into our resources and we're serious about not being held hostage, it will have, I believe, a more immediate impact on the price of gas," said Coleman.

DFL Senate candidate Al Franken says he's not opposed to current offshore drilling. But Franken says he does not support expanding areas for drilling, in part because energy companies are not drilling in millions of offshore acres that are already available to them.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm just working to be able to pay for my gas to drive to work."

As for Coleman's claim that allowing outer shelf drilling would bring down gas prices, Franken says it's misguided.

"The White House disagrees, so do independent energy experts," said Franken. "The White House says drilling offshore will not have an effect until 2030. This is the George W. Bush White House."

Franken and Coleman seem in agreement that the U.S. needs to exploit renewable energy and even expand nuclear energy, but both acknowledge those are long-term projects.

For the short term, Franken says the government needs to better regulate the oil market.

"We have to do investigations by the FTC and the Justice Department, to see if there have been any manipulation in the speculation, and just to regulate these future commodities markets and make sure that everything's being done in a kosher way," said Franken.

Franken says another short-term solution could be found in imposing new windfall taxes on energy companies, and directing the money toward working Americans who are being hit the hardest by the high cost of energy.

Franken opposes a so-called gas tax holiday, which Coleman favors.

However Franken is now in agreement with Coleman that, with gas prices around $4 a gallon, now is no time to consider increasing the federal gas tax to raise money for roads and bridges.