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New Canaan Advertiser - Gas Prices, Energy on Voters' Minds

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New Canaan Advertiser - Gas Prices, Energy on Voters' Minds

With gasoline prices continuing to rise and the country facing a crisis over energy policy and supply, the issue is expected to be a major one in the battle for the Fourth Congressional District.

Republican incumbent United States Rep. Christopher Shays is facing perhaps his greatest challenge in Cos Cob resident and Democrat Jim Himes, who has already set fund-raising records.

But a primary challenge by fellow Greenwich resident Lee Whitnum still stands in Mr. Himes' way.

All three campaigns say high gasoline prices and energy questions are some of the biggest issues on voters' minds and they expect this to be a top campaign issue.

In a statement to the Greenwich Post, sister paper to the Advertiser, Mr. Himes said the high price of gas is the issue he's most asked about, and an issue that has impacted the district's families, costing them about $500 per car this past year.

"That's a tremendous amount of money, and it puts a real strain on families that are already struggling with higher food costs, diminished property values and a bearish stock market," he said.

Rep. Shays was unavailable for comment, but his campaign manager, Michael Sohn, said the candidate has already introduced bipartisan legislation with New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-22) called the Energy for Our Future Act. Mr. Sohn said the bill has a four-part goal - a national energy policy, improved fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles, incentives for energy efficiency, and increased development of renewable energy sources while cutting tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry.

"Chris has long said that once we have a policy in place that ensures conservation, then we can look to increase our energy supply," Mr. Sohn said. "We need to be investing in sources such as wind, geothermals, biofuels and building new nuclear power plants."

The bill has been introduced to Congress, according to Sean Phillips, Rep. Shays' communications director, who said it has 15 co-sponsors. Mr. Phillips said no action has yet been taken on the bill, and Rep. Shays is looking for ways to amend it to do more.

Rep. Shays also introduced legislation that places a cap on the amount of oil people may trade. Developed with Colorado Rep. Earl Perlmutter, Democrat, the legislation aims to deal with excess speculation in the commodities market.

While Mr. Sohn said today's market has investors with as many as 50 million barrels under their control to make money off rising prices, the cap outlined in the bill would allow for a maximum of 20 million barrels.

"Basically, this would stop hoarding," Mr. Sohn said, adding that Rep. Shays is looking to get more disclosure about who actually owns oil on the commodities market and close what's known as the "Enron loophole" to get more government oversight.

Ms. Whitnum said that ending the Iraq War and limiting speculation would decrease oil costs.

"War uses 30 percent of the world's oil," she said via e-mail Tuesday. "End the war."

"Speculation is driving the price of oil up, and not by normal market conditions; therefore, restore supply and demand by limiting who can speculate and/or impose a cap on the volume of trades on the Mercantile Exchange," Ms. Whitnum added. "Or raise margins high enough to make it too costly for hedge funds to overspeculate ..."

Mr. Himes blamed high energy prices on the lack of long-term leadership on energy and transportation policy, one of the main reasons he said he is running for Congress.

"We've got two options right now as far as energy is concerned - increase supply or decrease demand," Mr. Himes said in his statement. "We need to do both, especially in expanding production of renewable and alternative energy sources and reducing our need for carbon-based energy sources."

Short term, Mr. Himes said, tax cuts for middle class families will help those struggling with rising costs. He criticized Rep. Shays, claiming he has supported tax cuts for wealthier Americans while opposing them for the middle class.

"For too long, oil companies and the extremely wealthy have gotten special generous tax breaks, while working and middle class have been strapped," Mr. Himes said. "The fastest and most effective way to help families cope with rising fuel prices and associated rising food prices is to give tax cuts to the people who need them most."

Mr. Himes advocates raising fuel efficiency standards for all cars, including light trucks and SUVs. Doing so, he said, will decrease net consumption of gas and lower the price. He also is calling for tax incentives for the production and purchase of hybrid vehicles and new fuel technology, while investing in public transportation. In addition, he is calling for the development of more "green buildings," and said if elected he would push the federal government to increase incentives for green development.

"If we reduce the amount of energy that buildings consume, including heating oil, we can lower energy costs in other areas," Mr. Himes said. "I know this firsthand because I spent six years building green affordable housing throughout this region as the head of the New York office of the Enterprise Foundation. Green building technology is cost-effective, creates jobs and lowers energy consumption overall, a win-win-win."

When asked what should be done to reduce energy costs, Ms. Whitnum said, "Create business incentives for investors and entrepreneurs to develop renewable energy sources. These new businesses could create opportunities in a struggling economy, and we should encourage it by providing incentives to inventors who create smarter technology and cleaner fuel choices. Some energy ideas that could be explored are wind, solar, wave, ethanol, biofuels, and even methane gas."

She said that privatizing utilities would bring down prices and give consumers more choices. She also advocates providing incentives to homeowners for making their homes more energy-efficient - for example, she said, installing solar panels or improving insulation.

Ms. Whitnum said she wants to see public transportation improved.

"For instance," she said, "a bill was submitted today by a Massachusetts senator that would improve the tracks on this corridor which will allow high-speed trains like the [Amtrak] Acela to go from Stamford to Boston in approximately two hours. That would save a bundle on jet fuel."

In his bills and other positions, including opposition to drilling for oil in Alaska, Rep. Shays is taking different paths from his Republican colleagues, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee for President, whom Rep. Shays is supporting. While it could be argued that Rep. Shays' policies wouldn't be supported under a Republican administration, Mr. Sohn said the congressman is willing to work with both parties, as he has in the past, to create new energy policy.

"Chris has worked with Democratic Presidents and Democratic Congresses and Republican Presidents and Republican Congresses on the environment and on other issues," Mr. Sohn said. "He's gotten a lot done working with both parties and will get more done in the future."

Ms. Whitnum and Mr. Himes face each other in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, Aug. 12. The winner will face Rep. Shays in November.

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