(CNSNews.com) - With two former oil industry executives on one side and the man who literally wrote a book on the subject on the other, environmental policy is shaping up to be a major issue in the fall presidential election.
At the top of the list of environmentally-sensitive questions: rising gas prices, especially in politically crucial Midwestern states such as Illinois and Wisconsin. Both Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore are ready to blame the other camp for rising gas prices.
For Gore and the environmental movement, oil company price gouging is the root of the problem, and Democrats are salivating over the possibility of tying Bush and running mate Dick Cheney - both of whom have worked in the oil business - to fat cat gas companies.
Gore's Deputy campaign manager, Mark Fabiani, said Democrats plan to launch a major effort in several Midwestern states this week to link Republicans to high gas prices by drawing attention to Bush and Cheney's ties to the industry. The campaign comes as Bush and Cheney spend the days before the GOP convention stumping in Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio.
"This is the first time in history big oil has had two men at the top of the ticket," Fabiani said. "How are the two of them going to take on an industry they're a part of?"
Democrats have already unveiled a website, at www.bush-cheney.net, that bashes the GOP ticket for its ties to the oil industry. The site features an oil derrick that spews dollar bills.
Bush campaign officials fire back that Gore's "radical environmentalism" - including his support for a ban on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, stricter chemical emission standards supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, and global warming proposals in the Kyoto Treaty on climate change - has driven up gas prices and increased American dependence on volatile foreign oil.
"At least Bush and Cheney understand energy and the need for a sound oil policy," said a Bush spokesperson. "The Clinton-Gore administration has no energy policy to speak of, and they have no way of responding to rising prices."
The question of drilling in protected areas such as the Arctic Refuge has become a hotly-contested topic since Cheney was chosen as Bush's running mate. Bush has long indicated that he supports further domestic oil exploration, and Cheney voted to open the Refuge to drilling in the 1980s when he was a Wyoming congressman.
Environmental groups have long opposed further drilling in Alaska, with Guy Saperstein, a trustee of the Sierra Club Foundation, calling Gore "the best friend the environment has had in the Clinton administration" for his opposition to drilling.
But oil industry analysts say that drilling can be conducted in ecologically-friendly ways, and will drive down prices in the U.S. by severing the nation's reliance on OPEC price- setting schemes.
Both sides plan to make the issue of gas prices their own, but polls indicate that the public has not made up its mind about which side - oil companies or the federal government's regulatory activities - is most responsible for the crisis. A recent Gallup poll found that close to two-thirds of the public is "unsure" about the causes of gas hikes.
But most observers agree that few Americans would be willing to accept stricter environmental policies if they damaged the standard of living.
"It's far from clear that American citizens would applaud an 'energy policy' if it meant giving up their gas guzzling SUVs, car pooling, turning down thermostats in winter, turning them up in summer, switching off unneeded lights and all the rest," said a recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which has been at the forefront of calling for investigations into gas prices.
With gas prices soaring, the cost of home heating oil is also looming as a potential issue in Northeastern states, especially with the coming winter expected to be one of the coldest in recent years because of the receding effects of El Nino, a cyclical weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean.
Gary Sippin, CEO of Sippin Energy Distributors in Trumbull, Conn., said home heating oil prices are expected to skyrocket this winter.
"The OPEC polices [reducing oil production] along with factors such as EPA regulations have really kept prices elevated," said Sippin. "The unfortunate result of all this is the fact that oil inventories have been pushed down to historic lows - 20 percent lower than last year."
"We've already laid in stores of oil for later this year," said Sippin. "We're expecting demand to boom and prices to be very high."
Foreseeing a potential problem, the Clinton administration has proposed a series of proactive measures, including expansion of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, making short-term Clean Air waivers easier for energy companies to obtain, and extending Small Business Administration loans to oil producers and distributors to ensure cash flow.