July 29, 2008

1,200 Idahoans Tell Congress How Gas Prices Are Hurting Their Families

By Erika Bolstad, The Idaho Statesman, Boise

Jul. 29--WASHINGTON -- Cami Hurst and her husband's extended family had grand plans for their annual family reunion, and had even 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. They soon realized that their modest family gathering had become unaffordable, and instead of a beach getaway this summer, they would have to plan a family barbecue closer to home.

"That's $3,000 extra, and it was only in gas," said Hurst, 29, a Meridian mother of three children under age 7. "That's ridiculous."

Hursts' story is one of more than 1,200 submitted by ordinary people in response to a request by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. Crapo asked his constituents to tell him what the high price of gas was doing to their family budgets -- and what they want him to do about it in Congress. Over the past month, Crapo has been submitting their stories into the Congressional Record each day Congress is in session.

"One of the most powerful messages is the very clear, personal examples of how this crisis is not just a crisis at the gas pump," Crapo said.

Story after story reveals the erosion of a way of American life fueled by cheap energy. Sometimes, it's as small as having to forgo a cherished family reunion or sharing a ride to work. For some, though, it's a heartbreaking choice between filling up their cars or having 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.

Mary, of Boise, 87, described to Crapo the difficulty of raising her 10-year-old great-grandson on her meager Social Security check. She also did not provide her last name.

"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. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent. 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 near 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."

"What we don't hear enough in Washington, D.C., and Congress is the real-life stories of ordinary Americans, what the collapse of the middle class means to them," Sanders said. "I know that in Vermont I was just blown away by both the number of stories we heard, and the depth of pain that came through these e-mails. 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 Western oil shale development and research into electric cars.

Competing Democratic energy proposals have focused on conservation and curbing market speculation, but so far, do not call for opening up additional territory for domestic production.

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.

But Congress has gotten bogged down in election-year politics and has failed to make much progress on energy-related legislation. Congress is unlikely to pass any before its members go home at the end of the week for their annual August recess.


Crapo may want to consider sharing this comment from constituent from Aaron of Coeur d'Alene, who did not 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, 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."

Horses may not be practical for everyone, but Crapo's constituents weren't shy about offering other ideas.

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 round trip 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 an additional $100 a month.

Potter said she questioned why Congress wouldn't open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for drilling. Government studies have shown that it would have only a 75-cent-a-barrel effect on the price of oil, and it would take at least a decade for oil to start flowing. But many opinion polls also show that high gas prices mean people are more accepting of drilling in areas that, until now, have been off-limits. That includes ANWR and off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

"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, the Meridian mother, said 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 elsewhere, even if it means drilling for oil shale in Wyoming or opening ANWR.

"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."

Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104


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