WASHINGTON - President Clinton directed the release of 30 million barrels of oil from the government's emergency stockpile Friday. His top energy adviser cited a looming home heating crisis.
''We need to make sure that American families are warm this winter,'' Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said. ''This is the right time to do this.''
Richardson announced the decision - only the second time that oil from the reserve has been used in response to an energy emergency - a day after Vice President Al Gore called for a drawdown from the reserve.
Richardson said that home heating oil inventories were 19 percent lower than a year ago nationwide and 65 percent lower in New England, where people rely heavily on oil to heat their homes. Overall, oil stocks have been tight for months despite some increased worldwide production by the OPEC oil cartel.
Some energy experts predicted the move would cause both crude and heating oil prices to decline, but how much was uncertain. The country uses about 18 million barrels of oil a day.
''Down the line it could help some. It won't help instantly,'' said Wilfrid L. Kohl, an energy expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He said there will be a four- to six-week lag in getting the oil into the market.
''We're projecting that by Halloween the crude prices will be $25 to $27,'' said Bill O'Grady, an energy analyst at A.G. Edwards & Sons in St. Louis. On Friday, November crude was trading down $1.32 at $32.68 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The release was immediately criticized by Gore's Republican opponent for the White House, George W. Bush, and by OPEC member Saudi Arabia. A Saudi government official called it ''an election ploy requested by Al Gore.''
Bush, campaigning in Florida, said the government reserve ''is meant for a national emergency, a national war, a major disruption of supply'' and not to influence the market.
''The Strategic Petroleum Reserve should not be used a short-term political fix for somebody whose administration has been asleep at the switch,'' said Bush, the Texas governor and a former oilman.
Richardson said the purpose of the drawdown was ''not to influence prices'' but to address growing concern about low inventories of both heating oil and crude.
''This is not political,'' he insisted. ''The president wants to help the American people get home heating oil.''
Oil was last released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in 1991 during the Gulf War.
Richardson said the oil would be made available over the next 30 days with the first bids to be issued on Monday. The plan calls for a ''swap'' arrangement in which refiners would take the oil with the understanding that it would be returned to the reserve at a future date when oil prices are lower.
Northeast lawmakers have clamored for use of the government oil to rein in oil prices and deal supply shortages. The pressure became more intense in recent weeks as prices peaked at nearly $38 a barrel.
''This is just what the doctor ordered. There will be an immediate impact on prices when the markets realize we mean business,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania before Richardson's announcement, Gore said the release should be 30 million to 35 million barrels ''over the next month.''
The government reserve, created in 1973, has about 571 million barrels of oil in a series of salt domes near the Texas-Louisiana border.
It remains unclear what impact a modest injection of government-owned oil into the market will have on prices. Some analysts have said it probably would have little more than a psychological effect as a signal from the government that it is willing to intervene.
American refineries use about 14 million barrels of oil a day, and the country consumes 18.6 million barrels of oil products daily.
The president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries said that any drawdown of U.S. reserve would cause only a temporary dip in world oil prices.
''Prices will fall, but the effect will be temporary,'' Ali Rodriguez, who is Venezuela's oil minister as well as OPEC's president, said in a televised interview.
He said the world market needs so-called sweet crude to ease shortages of products such as gasoline, while the U.S. strategic reserve mainly consists of solid crude.
Use of the reserve to try to impact prices has been the subject of intense debate within the White House for months. Last spring, when oil prices soared and gasoline costs skyrocketed, the president's advisers were largely opposed to intervention.
But in recent weeks, views began to change, according to a senior White House official.
''What is different is that you've got more people feeling this is ... might be justified,'' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said a key factor was a realization that OPEC hasn't increased production enough to ease tight supply.