GOP Wants State Veto Power Over Offshore Drilling
NY Times
Published: June 18, 2008

WASHINGTON — President Bush, reversing a longstanding position, will call on Congress on Wednesday to end a federal ban on offshore oil drilling, according to White House officials who say Mr. Bush now wants to work with states to determine where drilling should occur.

The move underscores how $4-a-gallon gas has become a major issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, and it comes as a growing number of Republicans are lining up in opposition to the federal ban.

The party's presumptive presidential nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, used a speech in Houston on Tuesday to say he now favors offshore drilling, an announcement that infuriated environmentalists who have long viewed him as an ally. Florida's governor, Charlie Crist, a Republican, immediately joined Mr. McCain, saying he, too, now wants an end to the ban.

Even before the disclosure of Mr. Bush's decision, the drilling issue caused a heated back-and-forth on the campaign trail on Tuesday, as Mr. McCain sought to straddle the divide between environmentalists and the energy industry, while facing accusations from his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama, that he had flip-flopped and capitulated to the oil industry.

In Washington, the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, said Mr. Bush would urge Congress to "pass legislation lifting the Congressional ban on safe, environmentally friendly offshore oil drilling," adding, "The president believes Congress shouldn't waste any more time."

Mr. Bush has long advocated opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling, and in 2006 signed into law a bill that expanded exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. But the topic of coastal drilling has been an extremely sensitive one in the Bush family; Mr. Bush's father, the first President Bush, signed an executive order in 1990 banning coastal oil exploration, and Mr. Bush's brother Jeb was an outspoken opponent of offshore drilling when he was governor of Florida.

Now, though, President Bush is considering repealing his father's order. Although Ms. Perino said Mr. Bush "is not taking any executive action" on Wednesday, two people outside the White House said such a move was under serious consideration, and a senior White House official did not dispute their account.

"This is a strong point of discussion inside the White House," said Representative John E. Peterson, a Pennsylvania Republican who has been asking Mr. Bush for years to rescind his father's action. Mr. Peterson is also leading an effort in Congress to repeal its ban.

With oil selling for more than $130 a barrel and no end in sight to high gasoline prices, Mr. Bush, a former oilman from Texas who came into office vowing to address an impending energy shortage, does not want to end his presidency in the midst of an energy crisis.

No one knows for certain how much oil is in the moratorium area, but the federal Energy Information Administration estimates that roughly 75 billion barrels of oil in the United States are off-limits for development, and that 21 percent of this oil — or 16 billion barrels — is covered by the offshore moratorium.

Mr. Bush's new stance on offshore drilling will inject him squarely into the presidential campaign, by putting the full weight of the White House behind Mr. McCain at a time when he is trying to demonstrate presidential stature. But it will also expose Mr. McCain to accusations from Democrats that a McCain presidency would be akin to a Bush third term.

At the same time, the move will put the onus on Democrats, many of whom have long been staunchly opposed to offshore drilling. And it is likely to exacerbate the 30-year-old standoff in Washington over whether domestic drilling or conservation is the way to end American dependence on foreign oil.

That debate has grown especially acute in recent weeks, with the White House in "I told you so" mode. In a speech to the United States Chamber of Commerce last week, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "We should hear no more complaining" from opponents of domestic drilling, whom he called "part of the problem."

Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, responded by calling the vice president "Oil Man Cheney," saying: "So all that Cheney can talk about, the Oil Man Cheney can talk about, is drilling, drilling drilling. But there is not enough oil in America to make that the salvation to our problems."

After hearing of Mr. Bush's proposal on Tuesday night, Mr. Reid affirmed his opposition, saying, "The Energy Information Administration says that even if we open the coasts to oil drilling that won't have a significant impact on prices."

And the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said, "The president's proposal sounds like another page from the administration's energy policy that was literally written by the oil industry: give away more public resources to the very same oil companies that are sitting on 68 million acres of federal lands they've already leased."

The Congressional moratorium was first enacted in 1982, and has been renewed every year since. It prohibits oil and gas leasing on most of the outer continental shelf, 3 miles to 200 miles offshore. Since 1990, it has been supplemented by the first President Bush's executive order, which directed the Interior Department not to conduct offshore leasing or preleasing activity in areas covered by the legislative ban until 2000. In 1998, President Bill Clinton extended the offshore leasing prohibition until 2012. One person familiar with the deliberations inside the White House said that Mr. Bush was briefed on Tuesday by his top aides, including Joshua B. Bolten, the chief of staff, and that the aides recommended lifting the executive order.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are proposing several bills to undo the ban. They differ on how close to shore drilling could begin, but all would give states a veto on oil exploration within 100 miles of their coastlines. Ms. Perino said Mr. Bush believed Congress should pass one of the bills, so the federal government and the states could work together to share revenues from exploration.

The issue does not fall entirely along party lines. One prominent Republican opponent of drilling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, does not intend to change his stance, a spokesman said Tuesday. In Houston, meanwhile, Mr. McCain, who has long been at odds with Mr. Bush on another environmental issue, climate change, tried to distance himself from the White House.

In a speech to oil industry executives and business and community leaders, the senator implicitly criticized Mr. Cheney, who in 2001 dismissed conservation as a "personal virtue." Mr. McCain said the next president would have to break with the policies of the past, adding, "In the face of climate change and other serious challenges, energy conservation is no longer just a moral luxury or a personal virtue."

On the issue of offshore drilling, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Mr. McCain's domestic policy adviser, said the senator had supported the moratorium until a compromise was reached in late 2006 between the federal government and Gulf Coast states that permitted oil and gas exploration in a vast area mostly 100 miles from shore.

"Prior to that, he favored the moratorium as a way to support states' opposition to exploration," Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.

But Mr. Obama, campaigning in Michigan, swiftly pointed out that Mr. McCain had supported the moratorium during his 2000 presidential run. "His decision to completely change his position and tell a group of Houston oil executives exactly what they wanted to hear today was the same Washington politics that has prevented us from achieving energy independence for decades," Mr. Obama said in a statement.

Reporting was contributed by Carl Hulse from Washington; Elisabeth Bumiller from Houston; Jeff Zeleny from Taylor, Mich.; Jad Mouawad from New York; and David M. Herszenhorn from Washington.

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