By Michael Abramowitz and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 19, 2008
President Bush called yesterday 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 M. Reid (Nev.). "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 (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 it also gives Democrats another opportunity to link the presumptive GOP nominee to the unpopular president.
"McCain's capitulation to Big Oil could hurt him among independents and Clinton supporters, particularly in communities that depend on a clean ocean and beaches for their jobs and small businesses," said Daniel J. Weiss, an analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, referring to voters who backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her unsuccessful Democratic primary campaign against Sen. Barack Obama. "Bush's announcement of support today makes it clearer that Senator McCain is running for Bush's third term."
But Republicans are taking heart in recent polling that suggests the public may be more receptive to drilling, especially if it is 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.
"When drivers are paying $4 for a gallon of gas and there's the perception that the economy's going to hell in a handbasket, voter attitudes regarding offshore drilling can change pretty quickly," said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. "All of our evidence indicates that's exactly what's happened."
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 yesterday 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. That prohibition was initially slated to expire in 2002, but in 1998 President Bill Clinton extended it to 2012.
During his appearance yesterday, 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, a move he said might open access to about 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil, or three times the reserves of Saudi Arabia. It has been considered too costly to develop those reserves, but Bush said the economic "calculus is changing."
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 yesterday 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. "Florida, like every other state, would be able to make those determinations about what they thought is appropriate," he said.
Richard Charter, a consultant for the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, said environmental and business groups have found common cause on the issue because pristine beaches generate so much tourism income.
"Offshore oil drilling results in the routine discharges of highly toxic metals, hydrocarbons and other substances," Charter said, adding that the toxins build up over time in marine life. Since the methods for cleaning oil spills have not advanced since the 1950s, he said, "it is counterintuitive" for a coastal politician to take actions that "could jeopardize your coastal economy."
But administration officials and others asserted that technology for preventing oil spills has improved and that drilling can be done safely. "Offshore leasing will not be popular in coastal states, but it will be very popular with consumers as a whole," said J. Robinson West, a leading energy consultant in Washington. "This is an eminently logical thing to do. Oil exploration is an industrialized process, but environmentally now it is very safe."
A major uncertainty is the economic impact of offshore drilling, which by Bush's estimate could result in an extra 18 billion barrels of oil -- equivalent to the nation's current oil production for the next 10 years, according to the White House. Hennessy said he thinks that oil prices might fall as markets began building in the expectation of a growing supply. "We would expect it to have an effect on the price; it's very difficult to quantify," he said.
But the federal Energy Information Administration estimated that if leasing began in 2012, "access to the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030."
Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, dismissed the proposal, saying that "just as he did with his gas tax holiday gimmick, it's clear that instead of straight talk or tough talk, John McCain is offering nothing more than the same Washington double talk and old ideas that have failed our families for too long."
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said the campaign is confident that the senator's proposal will resonate with Americans anxious about rising fuel costs.
"I think Senator Obama finds himself in a very precarious position, because this is John McCain's action versus Barack Obama's inaction," Bounds said. "This ultimately comes down to John McCain making a decision that we need to pursue policies that lower gas prices for frustrated Americans."