WASHINGTON, July 15 – US President George W. Bush has lifted a White House ban on offshore oil drilling and urged lawmakers to follow suit amid an election-year fight over painfully high gasoline prices.
"The American people are watching the numbers climb higher and higher at the pump, and they\’re waiting to see what the Congress will do" about legislative prohibitions, he said in a brief statement in the White House Rose Garden on Monday.
But Democrats who control both houses of the US Congress rejected Bush\’s mostly symbolic appeal, effectively dooming a proposal that appeared to enjoy broad US public support some four months before the November elections.
"The Bush plan is a hoax. It will neither reduce gas prices nor increase energy independence," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who urged Bush to bring some of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve stockpile to market.
"We cannot drill our way out of this problem," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who charged that big oil companies are "not using more than half of the public lands they already have leased for drilling."
The existing ban may be renewed or modified when it expires September 30, and the White House wants legislation that would give states a say in whether to allow offshore drilling, how much and where, and how to manage revenues.
Bush\’s announcement came two weeks before lawmakers leave for their month-long August recess, at a time when four out of five Americans tell public opinion surveys that sky-high gasoline prices cause considerable economic pain.
"As the Democratically controlled Congress has sat idle, gas prices have continued to increase. Failure to act is unacceptable. It\’s unacceptable to me, and it\’s unacceptable to the American people," he said.
Democrats counter that a plan that, by some estimates, would not yield a drop of oil for as much as a decade will not bring down gasoline prices now and that Bush has done too little to seek alternative energy sources.
The announcement came amid a bitter political battle over soaring gasoline prices at a time when US public opinion polls show most voters worry most about the economy even more than about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Presumptive Republican presidential champion John McCain has pushed for ending the offshore drilling ban, drawing fire from environmental groups and his all-but-certain Democratic rival, Barack Obama.
A late-June poll by CNN found that 73 percent of the US public at least mildly supports increased offshore drilling, while 27 percent at least mildly opposes it. The error margin was plus or minus three percentage points.
Under the 1981 federal moratorium, states are prohibited from allowing offshore oil and gas drilling and exploration, protecting virtually the entire Atlantic and Pacific coastlines and sections of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Governor of oil-rich Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, welcomed Bush\’s announcement.
"Louisiana produces 30 percent to 40 percent of the nation\’s oil and gas off our coast. It is certainly good for our economy. It is also good for the nation," he told Fox News.
"We\’re sending tens of billions of dollars overseas, often to countries who are not friendly to us … this is one of the reasons we\’ve got such a large trade deficit," the Indian-American governor said.
Critics of lifting the drilling moratorium say it would jeopardize the environment and that production would take years to get up and running and thus is not a realistic answer to the current supply crunch.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had already said he wants no drilling off his state\’s lengthy portion of the US west coast, renewed his opposition and urged the country to move away from its dependence on oil.
"I know people are frustrated with the soaring price of gas, and I welcome the national debate on solutions to lower our energy costs, but in California we know offshore drilling is not the answer," he said.
The White House hopes for a two-step process, first lifting the congressional ban and then legislating a precise distance from shore where drilling would be possible, a formula for revenue sharing, and measures to make sure states have a say in how the drilling would proceed.