Amid record-high gasoline prices, America's energy future has emerged as a major issue in this year's U.S. elections.  VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, Democrats and Republicans are offering markedly different plans to address the issue.

Like people in many countries, Americans love their cars and the freedom to travel wherever and whenever they please.  But a surge in gasoline prices is squeezing family budgets and forcing many people to alter their driving habits.

With anger rising across the country, U.S. politicians are responding with a flurry of proposals.  Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's plan focuses on increasing U.S. oil production by authorizing drilling in, among other places, an ecologically-sensitive region in Alaska.

Speaking on the Fox News Sunday television program, she argued that, at a time when global oil output barely matches demand, it makes no sense to forgo opportunities to boost crude supplies.

"If we do not increase the production in this country, we are not going to bring the price of oil down.  We are not going to bring the price of gasoline at the pump down, and we are not going to become independent [from foreign sources of oil]," said Hutchison.

President Bush has also urged expanded drilling in Alaska, but leaders in the Democratically-controlled Congress say it would take years before the initiative actually yielded oil, and the added production would only marginally boost domestic supplies.

More fundamentally, Democrats say the long-term key to addressing America's energy needs is not to scour the earth in search of finite reserves of fossil fuels, but to stress conservation while redirecting consumption towards alternative energy sources.

North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan also appeared on Fox News Sunday.

"We have got to address renewable [energy sources] in a very significant way.  Yes, we should produce more, we should drill more, but you cannot drill your way out of this," said Dorgan.  "We have to have a different energy mix because 60 percent of our oil now comes from of our shore.  This is all about change."

Gasoline prices have continued to rise, despite a leveling off of U.S. consumption as Americans drive less and rely more on public transportation.  

That fact has led some to argue the real culprit behind the current spike in oil prices is speculation by energy investors.  Some lawmakers in Washington are calling for stricter regulations on energy trading markets as well as new taxes on oil companies that are enjoying record profits.

"There is nothing at this point that justifies the price of oil or gas in this country with respect to supply and demand.  Every month since January our domestic crude supply has gone up.  Demand is going down because the economy is slowing, and yet the price of oil is going through the roof.  Why?  Because there is an orgy of speculation going on in the futures markets," added Byron Dorgan.

But oil companies say new taxes on energy providers would be counterproductive and unwarranted.  

"If you look at the first quarter of this year, the profit the industry made was 7.4 percent.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average made 8.5 percent.  The problem we have now globally is that supply and demand are very close," said Red Caveney, who heads the American Petroleum Institute.  "That creates the platform for people to enter into these commodity markets."

Caveney says boosting oil production would reduce the expectation of continued tight oil supplies and discourage market speculation. 

The presumed presidential nominees of both major U.S. political parties oppose expanded Alaska oil drilling and say the United States must change its energy consumption habits.

In addition, Republican John McCain is proposing a temporary lifting of federal gasoline taxes to ease the strain on Americans' wallets.  

Democrat Barack Obama says the savings would be minimal and would rob the government of funds needed for road construction and other infrastructure projects. Instead, Obama has proposed a $1,000 tax cut for middle-income earners.