The Carter administration's decision to allow limited exports of heating oil and diesel fuel to oil-rich Iran drew instant outcries from New England congressmen yesterday, just hours after President Carter said he "personally approved" the sales.
Calling it a "travesty showing callous disregard for domestic supply shortages," Rep. David Emery (R-Maine) sent a telegram to Carter saying, "We are desperate in Maine. Does Iran come first?"
Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) also blasted the White House yesterday and announced he will offer an amendment to the pending Export Administration Act extension next month to bar the sale of short-supply domestic heating oil to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime.
The export sale of 1.5 million barrels of middle distillate heating oil, approved by the Commerce Department Aug. 3, was also sharply criticized by Sen. John Durkin (D-N.H.) and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
The Carter administration has repeatedly expressed concern that the country, particularly import-dependent New England, will not have sufficient heating oil stocks this winter. Earlier this year, during a campaign-style visit to New Hampshire, Carter said he was committed to having a stockpile of 240 million barrels of middle distillate oil before winter.
Yesterday Sen. Dole, a potential Republican presidential challenger, said, "With the scramble to stockpile enough heating oil reserves for use this winter, it is inconceivable to me that the administration would allow the export of this most important oil product."
The president, cruising on the Mississippi River boat Delta Queen, said the sale engineered by Amerada Hess to Iran was justified. "They use kerosene in their homes like we did when I was a child, to cook and everything else, and they had a very severe shortage of kerosene," Carter said.
Carter also said that the 1.5 million barrels was "just a tiny amount" and that "since they sell us more than that every day, I personally approved the sale of kerosene to Iran."
Carter's decision to allow the heating oil exports will almost certainly add to the administration's problems in winning cooperation from New England congressmen on energy legislation. Pressure from New England has already resulted in special regulatory decisions to subsidize heating and residual oil imports, on which that region heavily depends.
At the Energy Department yesterday, spokesman Phil Keif said outgoning energy secretary James R. Schlesinger recommended that the Commerce Department issue an export license to Amerada Hess. Keif said the exports of domestic refined heating oil "won't hurt the stockpile."
Carter said that the exports were justified on a one-time basis because rioters blew up a pipeline to the Abadan refinery, which produces nearly all of Iran's heating oil.
Ironically, approval of the exports comes at a time when U.S. relations with Tehran's radical Islamic regime are increasingly strained.
At the State Department yesterday, spokesman Thomas Reston told reproters the administration's decision was predicated on an effort to win Tehran's assurance of continued oil exports to the United States.
Before the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution drove the shah from the peacock throne, Iran was the oil cartel's second leading producer. Since then it has halved production, and is now sending about 900,000 barrels here a day.
According to Oil Daily, an industry trade publication, the middle distillate was sold at 55 cents a gallon, far less than the 70-cent market price.
Oil industry executives speculated yesterday that Amerada Hess, a New York-based refiner, was offering the Iranian government a discount in order to win favor and secure oil imports for itself. Its executives were unavailable for comment.
Carter's approval of the export deal comes just a few weeks after the White House avoided political embarassment by rejecting recommendations from the Treasury Department that it join the oil cartel in opposing an antitrust suit filed by the Machinists union in a Los Angeles court.