by Jason Cisper
When members of Congress from several North east states met with President Bill Clinton March 2 to discuss the oil crisis, OOIDA's efforts were a topic of discussion. Vermont Rep. Bernard Sanders, cosponsor of HR 3608, made note of the association's support of legislation that would help ease the strain of heating oil and diesel fuel prices. (HR 3608, according to a representative from Sanders' office, would create a fuel oil product reserve for use when prices increase sharply.)
Immediately following the meeting, a copy of OOIDA's letter to the president (see "Issues and Positions, page 12) was passed on to White House staffers dealing directly with the oil crisis.
In Pennsylvania, Todd Spencer, OOIDA vice president, met with government officials Feb. 25 to discuss possible short- and long-term solutions to the fuel crisis.
Flanked by Rep. Camille "Bud" George, Rep. Ron Klink and other industry professionals, Spencer said that the government should tap federal oil reserves to help ease the strain caused by high fuel prices. Likewise, Spencer said that the implementation of tax incentives would help encourage people to seek out alternatives, reducing dependency on heating homes in the northeastern states, freeing up more oil for transportation.
"Lawmakers also need to move more aggressively to help truckers with the their inability to charge and collect rates sufficient to keep the industry healthy for drivers and all those who are served by trucking," he said.
In the past 14 months, per-barrel oil prices have tripled, as members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have collectively limited their output. Prices per barrel shot above $32 early in March, and have remained above the $30 mark. Some industry analysts say the prices could climb as high as $40 per barrel.
As a result, the cost of diesel fuel (particularly in the Northeast) has jumped to more than two dollars per gallon in many areas. And despite pressure from U.S. lawmakers, OPEC remains tight-lipped about when they will ease supply limits.
"We recognize the need for an increase in production," said Ali al-Naimi, Saudi oil minister. "We have yet to decide by when and how much."
Once the OPEC nations increase their oil production, however, it may take as long as six weeks for the product to reach American consumers. Thus, the cost of fuel will remain at high levels for some time. Many lawmakers are looking at proactive measures to not only solve the current problem, but prevent such a disaster from occurring again in the future. In addition to Rep. Sanders' proposed "Home Heating Oil Price Stability Act," several other government officials have thrown their ideas into the arena.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (who was once a trucker himself) has introduced a bill to temporarily suspend federal excise taxes. He has asked that OOIDA members call their senators and encourage them to cosponsor and support the bill. Similarly, Pennsylvania Rep. George says he is trying to build interest in lowering state fuel taxes on an interim basis for truckers. Rep. Klink has said he would support the creation of a strategic petroleum reserve for the northeastern states. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond has established some aid for truckers in the form of low-interest, small business loans. And Arkansas Rep. Asa Hutchinson has called on Bud Shuster, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, to hold hearings as soon as possible to discuss remedies to soaring diesel prices.
President Clinton is also receiving pressure from lawmakers to tap into the nation's 565 million-plus barrels of stockpiled oil until OPEC nations increase their production. Untouched since the start of the Gulf War in 1991, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve could provide necessary relief. Although President Clinton has said the use of such reserves is an option, it remains an unlikely possibility that the oil will be utilized. Bill Richardson, U.S Energy secretary, echoed the president's sentiments.
"We are not actively considering using (the reserves) in the current context, though the president hasn't ruled out anything to help the American people," he pointed out. "The ... issue is still very much on the table.
At the grassroots level, OOIDA members have staged rallies in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Their efforts have resulted in several meetings with key lawmakers and other government officials.
On Feb. 22, several hundred drivers (initiated by a group of New Jersey dump truck owners) formed a convoy and drove to Washington DC, to attract attention to the burden of outrageous fuel prices. Their message was that the financial burden has put a tremendous strain on small fleet owners and individuals who owned their own trucks. Several OOIDA members, including Tom Dice of Crownsville, MD, were in attendance. Dice says he was pleased with the demonstration.
"I'd heard about (the rally) the night before on the 6 o'clock news," he says. "In Maryland, the police met the convoy and led them to DC, right up to the Capitol Building. I wasn't sure what to expect. I thought there would be a yelling/screaming match, but everything went smoothly."
Truckers should be contacting their state and federal elected officials right now to push for whatever relief may be available, OOIDA's Todd Spencer advises.
"But the core issue is really bigger and more basic," he says. "If fuel were free, we'd still be stuck in the same situation. The industry has lost the ability to set and collect reasonable rates for transportation services provided. That's where the focus needs to be - with carriers, truckers and lawmakers. That's the only real solution."