By Dan Eggen and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
President Bush yesterday lifted a presidential ban on offshore oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf that was implemented by his father, escalating a confrontation with Democrats in Congress over how to cope with soaring gas prices.
Lifting the presidential moratorium has no immediate effect on exploration because Congress has enacted its own prohibitions on offshore drilling every year since the 1980s as part of the Interior Department's appropriations bill, and congressional Democrats yesterday vowed to do so again.
But Bush's move carries symbolic and political significance on an emotional issue in an election year. In a Rose Garden statement at the White House yesterday, Bush argued that allowing drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines would ease pressure on oil prices by increasing domestic production. Bush also urged Congress to approve other steps, such as allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and he blamed Democratic opposition to drilling for the current run-up in gasoline prices.
"We need to take action now to expand domestic oil production," Bush said, adding later: "With this action, the executive branch's restrictions on this exploration have been cleared away. This means that the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress."
Democrats and environmental groups replied that expanding offshore oil production would take years and have no impact on oil prices for a decade or more. They urged oil companies to make greater use of federal lands and waters already open to exploration. And they pressed Bush to back other measures, such as releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to lower the price of oil now.
"People who tell us that the solution to our problem is drilling offshore are peddling our addiction," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "The drug is oil, and they don't want us to get off it."
Business groups widely hailed Bush for lifting the presidential ban and pointed to estimates by federal geologists that there may be as much as 17.8 billion barrels of oil in areas currently off limits. But some oil companies have conceded that limits on skilled manpower and drilling equipment would make it difficult to increase offshore drilling in the near future. Oil company executives have said they would most likely focus on the eastern Gulf of Mexico if the moratorium is lifted.
The move by Bush addresses an issue already being disputed in the presidential campaign. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, has endorsed opening more of the Outer Continental Shelf for exploration. The expected Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), opposes lifting the moratorium.
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said yesterday that Bush's proposal "would merely prolong the failed energy policies we have seen from Washington for 30 years."
But McCain argued, "If we can show that we have significant oil reserves off our coasts, that will clearly affect the futures market and affect the price of oil."
The presidential ban has been in effect since June 1990, when President George H.W. Bush issued a directive to the Interior Department limiting offshore drilling to areas off the coast of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and limited parts of Alaska. In 1998, President Clinton extended the order through 2012.
Last month, the current president called on Congress to lift its drilling ban, saying he would rescind the executive ban at the same time. But Bush and his aides said he changed course because Democrats had failed to schedule hearings or take the issue seriously.
"It's been almost a month since I urged Congress to act, and they've done nothing," Bush said. "As the Democratically controlled Congress has sat idle, gas prices have continued to increase."
Marine sanctuaries would remain off limits under President Bush's new memo. Coastal Alaska is already open to exploration, and many longtime leases remain off California and elsewhere.
The moratorium on offshore drilling has been popular across parties, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) supports it. But White House press secretary Dana Perino said some Democrats "are starting to change their position" in part because of escalating gas prices.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans tried to foment unrest among rank-and-file Democrats. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) ridiculed Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, who has proposed targeting oil speculators as a way to restrain prices rather than proceeding with a vote on the Republican plan. That plan would give states a share of federal oil royalties and the flexibility to allow deep-sea drilling off their coasts.
"His proposal is not a road map, it's a roadblock," said Domenici, the top Republican on the energy committee.
Republicans are backing a proposal that would allow for more drilling and more funding for renewable energy resources. "We say 'Yes, we can' to finding more. We say 'Yes, we can' to using less," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), borrowing a phrase Obama has made a signature of his presidential campaign.
Since gasoline topped $4 a gallon earlier this year, some Democrats have reconsidered their positions on drilling. This has spawned bipartisan working groups of House and Senate lawmakers hoping to craft a centrist solution to soaring energy prices.
But key Democrats continue to oppose the drilling effort. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called Bush's announcement "a false promise that simply won't deliver" the benefits claimed by the administration. Feinstein said it would take at least seven years under the best circumstances to begin drilling in areas currently under a moratorium and that the risk of environmental accidents is too great.
"There simply are no good or easy options to bring prices down," Feinstein said. "Instead, what we need is a long-term solution that will reduce America's reliance on fossil fuels."
Technically, Congress could lift its moratorium simply by failing to renew it as required at the start of each fiscal year, officials said. But the White House says new legislation is also needed to make sure that neighboring states can share in lease revenues and have a say in how exploration would go forward.
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.