WASHINGTON – President Bush called Wednesday for lifting the 27-year-old ban on U.S. offshore oil drilling, joining Sen. John McCain in endorsing an idea that Republicans hope will gain traction in Congress and on the campaign trail as the price of gasoline soars.
In a Rose Garden appearance, the president challenged Democrats to drop their “obstruction” of proposals to expand domestic energy production.
“Americans will rightly ask how … high gas prices have to rise before the Democratic-controlled Congress will do something about it,” he said.
Democratic leaders in Congress said the plan is going nowhere. “President Bush and John McCain are not serious about addressing gas prices,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada. “If they were, they would stop offering the same old ideas meant to pad the pockets of Big Oil and work with Democrats to reduce our dependence on oil.”
On Monday, McCain, R-Ariz., called for lifting the ban, reversing an earlier position and angering environmentalists whom he has sought to appeal to in his presidential campaign. Bush’s announcement puts the weight of the White House behind the idea, but also gives Democrats another opportunity to link the presumptive GOP nominee to the unpopular president.
Republicans are taking heart in recent polling that suggests that the public may be more receptive to drilling, especially if it were coupled with other initiatives to address gas prices. A recent Gallup poll showed that 57 percent of respondents were willing to support drilling in the nation’s coastal and wilderness areas currently closed to exploration.
This view appears to be fueling the separate announcements from Bush and McCain this week that they want Congress to abandon its moratorium on offshore drilling. Bush has spoken favorably of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico before, but Wednesday was the first time he indicated that he would rescind an executive branch order banning all offshore drilling if Congress removed its own long-standing prohibitions.
The moratorium was imposed in 1981, when lawmakers from coastal states sought to block leasing off the Massachusetts and California coasts. Congress has approved the moratorium every year since. President George H.W. Bush issued a separate executive order banning offshore oil drilling in 1991.
During his appearance Wednesday, Bush again urged Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil drilling and to ease the regulatory obstacles to expanding refining capacity. McCain remains opposed to drilling in the refuge.
The president also called for ending a ban on oil shale drilling in the Rocky Mountain states.
Much of this agenda will prove controversial, especially in politically influential coastal states such as Florida and California, whose GOP governors diverge on the wisdom of drilling. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a key McCain ally, reversed his position this week and said he favors lifting the federal ban, giving states the option of drilling, while California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday restated his opposition to drilling off the state’s coastline.
Keith Hennessy, director of the White House National Economic Council, said that under the president’s plan, individual states would retain veto power.