Bush looks offshore for remedy to high oil prices
By H. JOSEF HEBERT Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — A House panel put off a vote Wednesday on extending Congress' ban on offshore drilling, even as President Bush was poised to publicly renew his call for lawmakers to open U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas development.
Drilling for oil and gas off nearly all the American coastline has been banned over the past quarter-century, in part to protect tourism and to lessen the chances of beach-blackening spills. Now, $4-a-gallon gasoline prices are a part of people's daily lives and motorists are clamoring for something to be done about the record price of oil, much of it produced in foreign countries.
In response, Bush was to call again Wednesday for exploration, arguing that it's high time to battle high prices with increased domestic production. He planned to ask Congress to lift the drilling moratoria that have been in effect since 1981 in more than 80 percent of the country's Outer Continental Shelf and to let states help to decide where to allow drilling.
"The president believes Congress shouldn't waste any more time," White House press secretary Dana Perino told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "He will explicitly call on Congress to ... pass legislation lifting the congressional ban on safe, environmentally friendly offshore oil drilling."
Keith Hennessey, the director of the president's economic council, said that Bush will lift a parallel executive order banning offshore drilling if Congress does likewise with the law. Asked why Bush doesn't act first and lift the ban, Hennessey said: "He thinks that probably the most productive way to work with this Congress is to try to do it tandem."
Bush, in a Rose Garden statement, will also call on Congress to make it easier for oil refineries to be expanded.
Even a quick change in law is expected to have no immediate effect on oil supply. The impact, Hennessey said, "is definitely measured in years." But he said that allowing a greater oil supply in future years could trigger the market to use more supply now and reduce the price of oil.
For their part, some lawmakers had their own plan: Legislation that would continue the ban into late 2009, and which had been scheduled to be considered Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee. But the session was postponed because the committee was focusing on disaster relief measures involving the Midwest flooding.
Congressional Democrats, joined by some GOP lawmakers from coastal states, have opposed lifting the prohibition that has barred energy companies from waters along both the East and West coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for 27 years.
On Monday, GOP presidential candidate John McCain made lifting the federal ban on offshore oil and gas development a key part of his energy plan. McCain said states should be allowed to pursue energy exploration in waters near their coasts and get some of the royalty revenue.
Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for president, opposes lifting the ban on offshore drilling and says that allowing exploration now wouldn't affect gasoline prices for at least five years.
McCain called for reform of the laws governing the oil futures trading market, and drew a standing ovation from his audience Wednesday when he repeated his day-old support for an end to the federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling. He favors allowing states to decide whether to explore offshore waters.
That drew a rebuttal from Obama, who said his opponent had switched positions from when he first ran for president in 2000. "I think he continues to find himself being pushed further and further to the right in ways that in my mind don't show a lot of leadership," he said.
Obama also said there is "no way that allowing offshore drilling would lower gas prices right now. At best you are looking at five years or more down the road."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, energy secretary during the Clinton administration, called it "another bad idea."
"It's going to take 10 years to fully get that oil out of the ocean. It's a fragile ecosystem," he said on CBS's "The Early Show."
"You know this president, all he wants to do is drill, drill, drill. There is very little on conservation, on fuel efficiency for vehicles. Just last week the Congress failed to pass a solar tax credit — give more incentives to renewable energy, solar and wind. A one track mind — drill drill drill — that's not going to work," Richardson said.
The 574 million acres of federal coastal water that are off-limits are believed to hold nearly 18 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Interior Department. The country each year uses about 7.6 billion barrels of oil and 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
In another development, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida has dropped his long-standing support for the federal government's moratorium on offshore drilling and endorsed McCain's proposal to let states decide for themselves.
When Republicans held the majority, the House twice voted to lift the ban, only to have the legislation die in the Senate. The Senate last month by a 56-42 vote rejected a GOP energy plan that would have allowed states to avoid the federal ban if they wanted energy development off their coast.
Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, issued a parallel executive drilling ban in 1990, which was extended by President Clinton and then by the current president until 2012.