The White House pointed an accusing finger at Congress. Senators leveled accusations at the oil companies. The oil companies, in turn, faulted the Iranian revolution and a rampant American fuel appetite.
Such was the state of political play yesterday of the Gasoline Gap. Everyone wanted to join the posse. The most elusive ingredient was a culprit.
It all began when President Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, accused Congress of shirking its responsibilty by voting "against the national interest" when it failed to enact the presiden's energy proposals, starting with the national energy plan he sent to Capitol Hill in 1977.
"In terms of the immediate situation," he said, "if Congress had passed the proposal we sent up in 1977 we would be significantly better off in terms of gasoline supplies this summer."
Meanwhile, a Senate energy subcommittee spent all day interrogating officials of big oil companies and the Department of Energy searching for the culprit behind the gas shortage. Some senators tried to pin it on the oil companies which denied it and said they wished they could find more oil to refine.
Senior officials of five major oil companies and Deputy Secretary of Energy John O'Leary said the shortage was caused by increased U.S. demand and the upheaval in Iran, which closed down its 6-million-barrel-a-day oil industry last winter. Effects of that shutdown are only now being felt, they said.
The press secretary's outburst, which began in response to questions about repeated criticism of Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. was the latest in a series of jabs at Congress by the White House on the energy issue.
For more than a year, the president and his aides have periodically issued blasts at Congress on the issue, accusing the Democratic Party-controlled body of sacrificing the "common good" to narrow "special interests." Two weeks ago, Carter described the House as "irresponsible" and governed by "parochial timidity" after it rejected and killed his standby gasoline rationing plan.
At the same time, Democratic members of Congress, including some of its leader, have accused the administration of bungling and of creating public confusion by often-conflicting statements on the energy situation.
This war of words has escalated in recent weeks as the political stakes have risen. There is bound to be public anger over spot gasoline shortages, which the adminstratgion has predicted will persist and could grow worse over the summer, and the operative political question has become: Who will bear the brunt of the blame, the president or the Congress?
The White House, Powell made clearer than ever yesterday, intends to place that blame on Congress. Denying, as other presidential aides have, any intention of Carter to "run against" Congress next year, he said:
"It seems to me about time in a representative government for all those elected to represent the public interest to be held accountable for their actions. . . . The first thing necessary is for the public to know what's being done to them, and to the extent possible, we'll try to point that out to them."
Powell spoke in a calm voice, but his frustration, which is shared by other White House aides, was clear.
It is "disingenuous" to blame President Carter for the energy shortage, he said, when the real culprit is "the failure of Congress to act on his recommendations. I don't mean just rubber stamp them, but to act."
"The reason we are in this situation," Powell said at another point, "the reason people are standing in line for gas in California, is that we as a nation have allowed ourselves to become increasingly dependent and vulnerable to imported oil. I don't know of any other president who has devoted so much effort to a single domestic issue or who moved more quickly to deal with it" than Carter.
Asked how much blame the White House should bear for the situation, he snapped, "A damn sight less than has been attributed to us."
As for Schlesinger, one of the least popular administration figures on Capitol Hill, Powell said the energy secretary is the victim of a lack of consensus on oil policy in which "any spokesman for a realistic energy policy is going to be subject to rather extreme criticism from both ends of the spectrum."
Schlesinger, Powell added, has been "as effective as anyone can be given the situation.
"If the president proposes measures to deal with a real problem and they are rejected, there is almost a rush in this town to make excuses for rejection of a measure that was badly needed. In a few days, we are inundated with apologists with the attitude that it's all right to vote against the national interest if you can lay it off on the way the measure was lobbied."
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, O'Leary held out some hope that the gasoline shortage may ease by summer. It depends, he said, on whether the United States can pick up 200,000 to 300,000 barrels of oil a day from the international "spot" market of crude oil not under contract.
"My own view is that we will be able to pick that up" he said. "But there is panic buying in the spot market. If the world goes wild, it may disappear.
James H. Denike, Shell Oil vice president, told the Senate subcommittee American refineries have the capacity to refine another million barrels of oil a day but can't find it.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), waved a pamphlet of Energy Department figures that he said showed crude oils imports into this country were up during six months ended in April by an average of about 7 percent over the same period of a year before. "Where has all the oil gone?" he asked, suggesting domestic oil companies were withholding oil from market until prices rise.
Metzenbaum was told by both oil company officials and O'Leary that imports were down last year because in a period of abundant supply refiners drew on stocks on hand. Metzenbaum was also told the figures he had were preliminary and no longer correct.
Asked whether oil companies are wrongfully withholding gasoline from market to wait for oil price decontrol to begin next month, O'Leary replied that he doesn't know. He said he had no evidence of it.
Traditionally, the government has had to rely on the oil industry's own figures on oil it has in the ground and on hand. The two-year-old department has improved the government's ability to get reliable information but is still a year or two away from being able to answer that question with confidence, he said.