BANGOR — The Bangor and Aroostook Railroad could be getting back into the potato shipping business, thanks to the oil crunch that is keeping some truckers off the roads.
The railroad has notified members of Maine’s potato industry that it is prepared to get refrigerator cars into Aroostook County and move out potato harvests at a competitive rate, said Dan Sabin, vice president and chief operating officer of the railroad.
“We certainly don’t want to see the potatoes spoil or the industry lose a lot of money because they can’t get a competitive rate,” Sabin said Friday.
Truckers generally have to travel with empty trucks to Maine’s northern areas to ship potatoes out. The high price of diesel fuel has forced many truckers faced with losing money to idle their trucks in the meantime.
Some farmers in Aroostook County can’t find anyone to haul their potatoes south. Many truckers who normally wouldn’t mind making the run north with empty trucks now won’t go unless they also have a northbound load of goods.
“That leaves potato producers and the co-ops high and dry with no options,” Sabin said.
The railroad has not carted potatoes regularly for more than 30 years because the trucking industry has taken over, Sabin said, but it is looking to get back into the market.
“This is an opportunity to show the industry that we can aggressively pursue the markets that were lost to trucks,” he said.
Meanwhile, federal officials continued efforts to address the high price of oil.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have sent Energy Secretary Bill Richardson a letter urging him to tell oil ministers that unless they increase the oil output, the United States would dip into its own strategic oil reserve.
“We cannot sit idly by as OPEC continues to choke off our oil supply and manipulate our markets,” Collins wrote.
“By signifying our willingness to draw down the SPR, not only would prices drop, but we would be sending a message to OPEC that we will fight its anti-competitive practices, which we view as an attack on our economy,” she wrote.
Richardson has declined to use the reserve, maintaining it is designed for supply disruptions and not influencing prices.
In addition, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee is calling for foreign aid to be cut off to oil-producing nations that have slashed production.
Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., said Thursday that the United States currently provides military and economic assistance to various nations in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. That aid should be used as leverage to encourage OPEC to help lower prices by putting more oil on the market.
Gilman also said Clinton should re-examine the U.S. relationship with the OPEC nations.
Cutbacks in supply by OPEC have helped heating oil costs soar in the Northeast. President Clinton has released all of about $300 million in low income heating assistance money and is asking Congress for another $600 million.
Richardson was heading to Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for talks on oil prices in the coming days. His visit comes as oil ministers suggest they are open to raising their output of crude oil to restrain prices.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. John Baldacci’s office Web site has devoted a special section to the fuel problem. The site’s address is: www.house.gov/baldacci and the link to fuel information is located on the home page. Information about the low-income home energy assistance program, including telephone numbers, can be accessed on the Web site.