PENSACOLA, Fla. – Governors in some coastal states promised to fight attempts to tap offshore petroleum reserves, citing concerns about the environment and tourism. Others agreed with President Bush's call to lift a 27-year-old federal ban on offshore drilling but said states should decide whether to allow it.
Bush on Wednesday joined Republican presidential candidate John McCain in calling for the lifting of a prohibition on drilling along the East and West coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. As the battle to lift the moratorium began to play out in Washington, states debated their stance.
Califorina Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday he opposes lifting the ban on new oil drilling in coastal waters.
"We are in this situation because of our dependence on traditional petroleum-based oil," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
Another McCain ally, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, reversed his opposition to oil exploration off the state's beaches after the presidential candidate said he supported lifting the moratorium. Crist said the issue is about local control.
"I think that not having that moratorium, blanket moratorium, and letting states rights be recognized, if you will, certainly is appropriate," he said.
Crist said he didn't know if Florida legislators would approve drilling, but like McCain he said states should be allowed to make their own decisions. McCain favors lifting the moratorium at the federal level, but allowing states to decide whether to allow drilling.
The moratorium applies to all federal waters, which extend three miles from the states' coastlines. If Congress lifts the federal moratorium without special provisions giving states a say, states would have little control over oil companies' exploration of federal waters.
If that happens, anti-drilling states' best recourse would be to sue the federal government for allowing activities that are odds with the states' coastal management plans, said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Politicians and the public are increasingly divided on the offshore issue as energy prices spiral.
Virginia and South Carolina have largely supported lifting the moratorium, as have the governors of Mississippi and Alaska. California is joined by North Carolina and New Jersey among the anti-drilling states.
"States should be able to control their own destiny with what happens," said Joel Sawyer, a spokesman for South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford.
The state has "to be incredibly cognizant of our tourism industry and our other natural resources along the coast. We don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg," he said.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin supports allowing exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Bush also proposed opening. Palin believes "the answers lie right here in Alaska" for reducing foreign energy dependence, her spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said.
Those in favor of opening closed areas to drilling say they could eventually yield 18 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but opponents say it could be years before production begins and that would do little to stem the current rise of energy prices.
A state's openness to allowing drilling off its coast will have a big influence on energy companies' decisions about where to explore, said Tom Moskitis, managing director of the American Gas Association, which represent utilities feeding 60 million customers.
"At this point, the energy companies are in favor of giving the states options," he said. "They are looking more to the East Coast where there is a big potential for oil and natural gas. The political climate in California is such that just about everybody is opposed so it's not logical that exploration would begin there."
The Democratic governors of New Jersey and North Carolina joined Schwarzenegger in speaking out against lifting the moratorium.
"Our $35 billion economy is driven by tourism and the use of the shore," said New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley also argued to keep the moratorium in place.
"It's doesn't work for states to decide. If the state above or below you has a problem it affects your shores as well," he said. "It's too much squeeze for the juice when you look at real estate on the coast, recreational fishing and tourism that could be adversely affected by some problem."