[NORTH AMERICA] U.S. Congress votes to stop stockpiling oil

The House and Senate demanded on Tuesday that President George W. Bush halt the shipment of oil to the country's strategic petroleum reserve as long as oil prices remain high.

"Sticking oil underground is wrong at this point in time," Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, said as he urged approval of a measure offered by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader.

The Senate voted, 97 to 1, to tell Bush to halt the shipments to the strategic reserve, the supply of just over 700 million barrels that is stored in salt caverns along the Gulf Coast. The reserve is meant to protect the United States of America against a disastrous sudden cutoff of oil supplies, like the Arab embargo of the 1970s.

Tuesday evening, by a vote of 385 to 25, the House passed legislation that would suspend deliveries to the stockpile while the price of oil was above $75 a barrel, a measure that is similar to the Senate's.

The Bush administration has opposed the measures. Given the sentiment in the two legislative chambers, any veto of the measure by Bush would probably be overridden. But the Senate measure is part of another bill, while the House version is a stand-alone item, so there are some procedural hurdles that must be overcome before the oil-cutoff move can emerge from the full Congress.

Bush has argued that the 70,000 barrels a day now being added to the reserve is insignificant, compared with the country's overall consumption of oil. On that point, even some supporters of Reid's measure agreed. The United States consumes just under 21 million barrels of oil a day, according to the Energy Department.

Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, conceded that stopping the shipments to the reserve might be largely a symbolic step. Even so, he said, "this is one little thing we can do, and I think we should go ahead and do it."

The president has argued that shipments to the reserve, which is now about 97 percent full, should be continued until the stockpile reaches its capacity of 727 million barrels. But most lawmakers said the 70,000 barrels a day, while only a tiny fraction of America's daily consumption, would be better used to add supplies to the overall market, especially with oil now trading for more than $120 a barrel in the spot and futures markets.

Bush was preparing to depart for the Middle East on Tuesday, and there was no immediate word from the White House about whether Bush would definitely veto the oil measure.

Only Senator Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican who is not seeking re-election, voted against the measure, which took the form of an amendment to a flood insurance bill that was approved by a vote of 92 to 6.

Reid called the petroleum-reserve cutoff "a good first step" and said Republicans "must abandon their shortsighted strategy of 'drill, drill, drill.' "

Shortly after the vote, Senate Democrats introduced legislation, timed to coincide with the president's trip to the Middle East, to stop a scheduled arms sale to Saudi Arabia unless that country steps up its oil production.

"When the President meets with King Abdullah on Friday, we cannot settle for a smile, or a handshake, or even a glimpse into his soul," said Senator Charles Schumer of New York. "We need a commitment to pump more oil. If Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries do not substantially increase production, we in Congress will block their lucrative arms deals."

Both the president and Vice President Dick Cheney have called on the Saudis to increase their output of oil.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate rejected an amendment offered by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, that would have opened part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. That proposal, which needed 60 yes votes on a procedural motion to move ahead, got only 42, while 56 Senators voted no, effectively killing the amendment.

Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois interrupted their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination to vote to halt shipments to the petroleum reserve. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, was not present.
[NORTH AMERICA]  U.S. Congress votes to stop stockpiling oil
Source: International Herald Tribune| By David Stout
Published: May 14, 2008

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