Politics & Government

Tough choices: Idaho senator collects tales of gas price woes

High gas prices in the west on June 17, 2008.
High gas prices in the west on June 17, 2008. Eric Paul Zamora / Fresno Bee / MCT

WASHINGTON — Cami Hurst and her husband's extended family had grand plans for their annual family reunion, and had found a beach house they could all squeeze into on the Oregon coast.

Then they started adding up how much it would cost for five young families to drive from Idaho and soon realized that their modest family gathering had become unaffordable. Instead of a beach getaway this summer, they planned a family barbecue closer to home.

"That's $3,000 extra, and it was only in gas," said Hurst, 29, the mother of three children under seven. "That's ridiculous."

Hurst's story is one of more than 1,200 submitted in response to a request by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, for constituents to tell him what the high price of gasoline had done to their family budgets. Over the past month, Crapo has been submitting their testimonials into the Congressional Record every day that Congress has been in session.

The stories reveal how an American way of life is being eroded by the disappearance of cheap energy. Sometimes, the cost is small, such as foregoing a cherished family reunion or looking for someone to share a ride to work. Others, however, are heartbreaking — the choice between gassing up the car or eating a meal.

"Both my husband and I have been eating less to ensure that our children are well fed, among other cuts in our life," wrote one woman, who did not give her name.

A woman who identified herself only as Mary of Boise, 87, described the difficulty of raising her 10-year-old great-grandson on her meager Social Security check.

"I now either have gas to get to the store or medicine," Mary wrote. "With a 10-year-old, food is most important." There is "no regular bus service" where she lives, Mary wrote, and it costs $2 to get to and from the grocery store on the bus when there is service.

"Have you ever tried to feed yourself, a 10-year-old, pay property taxes and buy medicine on $517 a month?" she wrote.

Crapo said he was inspired to ask for the stories by one of his colleagues, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. Sanders sought letters from his constituents about the effect energy prices were having in Vermont, and then read them on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

The two men are nearly polar opposites on the political spectrum, but both represent rural states with cold winters where energy prices have hit families especially hard. The letters are intended to "introduce a dose of reality" to the energy debate, said Sanders, who bundled what he got from his constituents in a booklet titled "The Collapse of the Middle Class."

"I was just blown away by both the number of stories we heard, and the depth of pain that came through these e-mails," Sanders said. "People are really, really hurting."

There is, of course, a political agenda to the stories. Crapo is a co-sponsor of the Senate Republican energy plan, known as the Gas Price Reduction Act. The act has as its centerpiece a call for expanded offshore drilling, but also encourages oil shale development in the western United States and research into electric cars.

Competing Democratic energy proposals have focused on conservation and curbing market speculation, but don't call for opening up additional territory for domestic production. Sanders, who's the only Socialist in the Senate, said he's not against drilling on the 68 million acres of federal land already leased to oil companies, "but no one, not the Bush administration, thinks that drilling is going to have any impact on the current economic crisis."

So far, Crapo said that nothing he has heard has changed his mind about key provisions of the bill, including offshore drilling. The responses from his constituents have only clarified his views on the energy crisis, Crapo said, adding that he was pleased that people from Idaho seem to agree that it will take a "diverse and broad" approach to bring down prices.

That includes expanding the use of nuclear power, research into alternative fuels and additional conservation, Crapo said.

"By far, the consistent message I'm getting is exactly the kind of common sense I think Congress needs," Crapo said.

Congress hasn't made much progress on energy-related issues, however, and is unlikely to pass any legislation before it goes home at the end of the week for its annual August recess.

Which won't come as a surprise to Aaron of Coeur d'Alene, who also didn't provide his last name. Aaron wrote that he "doubts that Congress will act," and as a result, "I also would not be surprised to see your constituents come after Congress with pitchforks and torches."

Then there's this from Esther Miller of Athol, Idaho, who offered an only-in-a-rural state idea: If the price of fuel continues to rise, Miller wrote, "We will get to the point where we have to choose between the mortgages and utilities or gas in the tank. If it were not so far away we would consider riding horses to work every day."

Susan Potter, 52, and her husband told Crapo they used to drive separately from Firth to their jobs in Idaho Falls. Potter is a bookkeeper; her husband, Michael, 61, does auto body and fender repair.

A year ago, it cost about $320 a month for them both to drive 36 miles roundtrip each day. Now, they share the trip, but it costs them $340 "just to get to work," Potter said. The two-and-a-half hour trip to Wendell to check on her in-laws each month now costs them an additional $100 a month.

"Why can't you get some of the best minds together and come up with practical, common-sense solutions?" Potter asked. "We're the best country in the world to take care of things properly, why can't we come up with good solutions?"

Amen to that, said Daniel Melvin, owner of Boise's Melvin Communications.

"I think it's time that the world's most technologically advanced nation illustrate to the world the most technologically advanced means of extracting energy," Melvin said. "I hear people crying about how drilling in the U.S. might 'spoil natural resources.' I'd be willing to wager that if we weren't dependent upon Middle Eastern oil we could have, most likely, saved about 4,000 U.S. servicemen and women's lives."

Hurst said that her own spending on gas has crept up from $200 to $500 a month. She wants to see the United States become less dependent on oil from the Middle East or other foreign places, even if it means drilling for oil shale in Wyoming or opening up ANWR in Alaska.

"I'm an average stay at home mom," she said. "I just know how it's affecting my family. I just know it's killing our budget. We are totally held captive by the Middle East. They have the power over my family's budget, and I hate that."

(e-mail: ebolstad(at)mcclatchydc.com)

Related stories from McClatchy DC