WASHINGTON — Putting pressure on congressional Democrats to back more exploration for oil, President Bush on Monday promised to lift an executive ban on offshore drilling that his stood since his father was president.
But the move, by itself, will do nothing unless Congress acts as well to lift its own drilling ban. There are two prohibitions on offshore drilling, one imposed by Congress and another by executive order signed by the first President Bush in 1990.
“When Congress lifts the legislative ban, I will lift the executive prohibition,” Bush said in a statement in the Rose Garden.
The president, trying to ease market tensions and boost supply, called last month for Congress to lift its prohibition before he did so himself.
"The only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress," Bush said. "Now the ball is squarely in Congress' court."
Bush criticized Congress for failing to lift its own ban on offshore drilling.
"For years, my administration has been calling on Congress to expand domestic oil production," Bush said. "Unfortunately, Democrats on Capitol Hill have rejected virtually every proposal. And now Americans are paying at the pump."
The issue of offshore drilling has been debated by Congress in each of several rounds of deliberation over national energy policy, which culminated in passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
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. A succession of presidents, from Bush's father -- George H.W. Bush -- to Bill Clinton, have sided against drilling in these waters, as has Congress each year for 27 years. Their goal has to been to protect beaches and coastal states' tourism economies.
But since oil prices have surged above $140 a barrel in recent months, the White House believes that the political mood may have shifted since Congress last took up the idea of lifting the drilling ban. A poll last month by the Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of respondents said energy exploration and drilling were a top priority – up from 35 percent in February. Other polls have also found increased popular support for expanded drilling since oil prices have surged.
The bid for expanded drilling has also gained momentum last month when the governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, said that states should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to permit drilling in their coastal waters. Offshore drilling had been opposed by his predecessor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother.
Given its proximity to existing oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico, and the pipelines and other infrastructure already in place in the region, Florida offers some of the more promising lease prospects for new oil development.
Bush's proposal echoes a call by Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, to open the Outer Continental Shelf for exploration. Democrat Barack Obama has opposed the idea and instead argued for helping consumers with a second economic stimulus package including energy rebates, as well as stepped up efforts to develop alternative fuels and more fuel-efficient automobiles.
"If offshore drilling would provide short-term relief at the pump or a long-term strategy for energy independence, it would be worthy of our consideration, regardless of the risks," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement. "But most experts, even within the Bush administration, concede it would do neither. It would merely prolong the failed energy policies we have seen from Washington for thirty years."
Congressional Democrats Monday renewed opposition to lifting the drilling moratorium, accusing the president of hoping the U.S. can drill its way out a problem.
"Once again, the oilman in the White House is echoing the demands of Big Oil," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "The Bush plan is a hoax. It will neither reduce gas prices nor increase energy independence. It just gives millions more acres to the same companies that are sitting on nearly 68 million acres of public lands and coastal areas."
"This proposal is something you'd expect from an oil company CEO, not the president of the United States," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment Committee. "The president is taking special-interest government to a new level and threatening our thriving coastal economy."
It’s not clear how much oil and natural gas lie offshore in areas currently covered by the drilling ban. In any case, it would be years before new production would be brought online, offering no short-term relief to high gasoline prices. Bust also called for a streamlined permitting process to help speed construction of new refining capacity in the U.S.
Bush said offshore drilling could yield up to 18 billion barrels of oil over time, although it would take years for production to start. Bush also says offshore drilling would take pressure off prices over time. In addition, the president has proposed opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, lifting restrictions on oil shale leasing in the Green River Basin of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming and easing the regulatory process to expand oil refining capacity.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other lawmakers have backed legislation to allow offshore exploration. Their measure would pursue other ways to expand energy sources, too.
"Now the only thing standing between consumers at the pump and the increased American energy they are demanding is the Democrat leadership in Congress," McConnell said. "We should act and act now."
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called Bush's move "a very important signal" and said his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, should drop his opposition to offshore drilling.
Environmental groups repeated their opposition to expanding offshore drilling.
"President Bush has once again ignored the wise precedent set by his father and taken reckless action that has neither hope of reducing gas prices nor concern for long-term consequences," said Gene Karpinski, president of The League of Conservation Voters.
Asked if Bush's action alone will lead to more oil drilling, White House press secretary Dana Perino said, "In terms of allowing more exploration to go forward? No, it does not."
(The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.)