WASHINGTON (AP) -- For a quarter-century, drilling for oil and gas off nearly all the American coastline has been banned in part to protect tourism and to lessen the chances of beach-blackening spills.
Then gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon this summer. Drivers and others began clamoring for federal lawmakers to do something about the record price of oil, much of it produced in foreign countries.
In response, President Bush is renewing his call to open U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas development, arguing that it's high time to battle high prices with increased domestic production. He is planning to ask Congress on Wednesday 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."
For their part, some lawmakers have their own plan: Legislation that would continue the ban into late 2009 was scheduled to be considered Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee.
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.
Perino said Bush also would reiterate his call for giving companies access to oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. McCain has opposed drilling in the refuge, maintaining that the pristine areas in northeastern Alaska should be protected from energy development.
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.
The governor said he reversed his position because of rising fuel prices and states' rights. "I mean, let's face it, the price of gas has gone through the roof, and Florida families are suffering," Crist said. "And my heart bleeds for them."
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.
Congress imposed the drilling moratorium in 1981 and has extended it each year since, by prohibiting the Interior Department from spending money on offshore oil or gas leases in virtually all coastal waters outside the western Gulf of Mexico and in some areas off Alaska.
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.
Bush has been considering lifting the executive ban as a symbolic move to get Congress to take action, but he decided against doing so for the time being, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because internal deliberations were involved.
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