WASHINGTON – President Bush on Wednesday put his weight behind a move underfoot in Congress to lift a 27-year-old ban on oil exploration off U.S. shores as gasoline prices reach ever higher, and he cast blame on Democrats for Americans' pain at the pump in an election year that is focusing more heavily on economic issues.
Democrats contend that oil interest-tied Republicans are only seeking to expand oil companies' territory, and are ignoring land already available for oil exploration.
"For many Americans, there is no more pressing concern than the price of gasoline. Truckers and farmers, small-business owners have been hit especially hard. Every American who drives to work, purchases food or ships a product has felt the effect, and families across the country are looking to Washington for a response," Bush said, speaking from the White House Rose Garden. He took no questions.
Mentioning $4-per gallon gasoline more than once, Bush said, "My administration has repeatedly called on Congress to expand domestic oil production. Unfortunately, Democrats on Capitol Hill have rejected virtually every proposal, and now Americans are paying the price at the pump for this obstruction.
"Congress must face a hard reality: Unless members are willing to accept gas prices at today's painful levels or even higher, our nation must produce more oil and we must start now."
Bush said gasoline prices could eventually be eased with a four-point plan, the main plank of which is to open up the Outer Continental Shelf to oil exploration.
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.
On Wednesday, pointing to GOP legislation to allow offshore drilling, called for "good legislation as soon as possible. This legislation should give the states the option of opening up OCS resources off their shores, provide a way for the federal government and states to share new leasing revenues, and ensure that our environment is protected."
But Democrats are pointing to 68 million acres of federal land, to which they say oil companies hold leases allowing them to explore but are going unused.
"This should not be an attempt to get the goods through customs ... scaring people into offering more leases, more drilling opportunities, when they own 68 million acres, 14 years worth of supply, and are not drilling today," Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said Wednesday. It is a sentiment Democrats have voiced repeatedly in recent days.
Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., said he believed the United States should buy oil refineries.
"Our Republican friends also talk about the need to set up ways in which the material can be refined, refineries. Well, do we own refineries? No. The oil companies own refineries. Should the people of the United States own refineries? Maybe so," Hinchey said.
"Frankly, I think that's a good idea. Then we could control the amount of refined product much more capably that gets out on the market," Hinchey added.
Bush also laid out three other options: He renewed his call to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration; he also said the the country must be committed to development of oil shale — a type of rock that can yield petroleum if heated, for instance — in the western United States; and he said there must be more refinery capacity.
Bush admitted his proposals "will take years to have their full impact" but he said that rather than it being an excuse for delay, "it's a reason to move swiftly" and called on Congress to change the lift the moratorium by the July 4 recess.
The offshore drilling moratoria have been in effect since 1981 in more than 80 percent of the country's Outer Continental Shelf. It was instituted to protect tourism and lessen the chance of oil spills reaching popular beaches.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told FOX News on Wednesday that while the country moves to energy alternatives, like battery-operated cars, fuel supply has to be increased somehow.
"The president is saying, 'Let's not rely on regimes outside of our own destinies, let's try to use more of our own oil that we have right here at home.' And if we can get the revenue from it, and if we can have the benefit (we can) put back into or plow that investment back into research and development for alternatives and renewables that we're going to use in the future," she said.
Bush might benefit from increasing public support. As gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon recently, consumers have been urging the federal government to come up with a means to slow the sudden rise, including by reducing dependence on foreign producers.
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.
Other lawmakers are coming up with their own plan: Legislation that would continue the ban into late 2009 had been scheduled to be considered Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee.
However, the panel postponed all markups of spending bills early Wednesday, saying lawmakers were working on the supplemental Iraq war spending bill.
Pat Creighton, a spokesman for Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who introduced the amendment to lift the ban that failed in a subcommittee on Monday but was to be re-introduced on Wednesday, suggested the decision to delay was for another reason.
"I think it's because our message is resonating," Creighton told FOX News. Democrats denied the assertion.
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.
He repeated the call Tuesday, with his campaign launching an ad faulting Bush for not getting behind domestic production sooner.
"In effect, our petrodollars are underwriting tyranny, anti-Semitism, the brutal repression of women in the Middle East, and dictators and criminal syndicates in our own hemisphere," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said.
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.
He 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.