WASHINGTON — President Bush's call for Congress to end a ban on offshore drilling sharpened the partisan divide over energy policy and reversed a position he had held publicly through his presidency.
Yet the chance that Bush's speech Wednesday will yield results before he leaves office is slim.
And even if Congress did vote to end the federal moratorium on drilling, which appears unlikely with Democrats in control, Florida's Gulf Coast is protected by a separate 2006 law that also would need dismantling before drilling could proceed.
Instead, Bush's Rose Garden speech was a bit of political theater, a boost to pro-drilling Republicans in Congress and to his party's presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain.
McCain declared this week that he had changed his position and now favors off-shore drilling as well, ensuring that the question of whether America should try drilling its way to lower gas prices will be a central point of contrast between him and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama during the presidential race. Bush's Rose Garden speech lent his bully pulpit to the cause.
"Congress must face a hard reality," said Bush, an oilman, "unless members are willing to accept gas prices at today's painful levels — or even higher — our nation must produce more oil."
With the exception of waters off Alaska and every Gulf Coast state but Florida, most of the nation's Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) is off-limits to energy exploration up to 200 miles offshore, thanks to a moratorium that Congress has inserted into an appropriations bill every year since 1982.
President George Bush expanded the ban slightly in 1990. In 1998, after Republicans won Congress, President Bill Clinton extended the moratorium as an executive order through 2012, a belt-and-suspenders approach in case Congress failed to renew it.
Although President Bush had committed to upholding it since he ran for president in 2000, on Wednesday he pledged to lift the presidential moratorium as soon as Congress lifted its ban. He said the protected area includes an estimated 18-billion barrels of recoverable oil.
"Advances in technology have made it possible to conduct oil exploration in the OCS that is out of sight, protects coral reefs and habitats, and protects against oil spills," Bush said.
A House appropriations subcommittee voted to renew the moratorium last week, though it will face a serious challenge when the full committee considers the measure next week.
Still, prospects for action this year seem dim. In addition to a congressional calendar that's likely to be shortened by the election year, the Senate's top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is opposed.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a longtime drilling foe, said action is unlikely, but added, "I'm not going to close my eyes or turn my back."
The prospect of offshore drilling has long been radioactive in Florida and other coastal states. But Republicans believe $4-per-gallon gas is changing that and think voters will reward politicians who promise to drill. McCain's proposal has won support from Gov. Charlie Crist, a longtime opponent of offshore drilling, and other former coastal state critics. "It's amazing what tourism communities will accept when tourists can't afford to get there," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
But even if the moratorium that covers most of the U.S. coast were lifted, Florida would still be shielded by a 2006 law that focuses on the Gulf of Mexico. That law prevents offshore drilling within 125 miles of the Panhandle and about 230 miles off Tampa Bay.
Democrats and the Obama campaign have decided the value of oil drilling is an argument they can win, and they've launched an aggressive counterattack asserting that McCain and Bush are pandering, not problem-solving.
Democrats have coalesced on the issue. Florida's chief financial officer, Alex Sink, said she was "stunned" to see Crist line up in support of lifting the ban, and every one of Florida's Democratic House members signed a letter opposing Bush's call for lifting.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, acknowledged members are under significant pressure from voters to lower gas prices, "but we've got to call the bluff of President Bush and the big oil companies, because they cannot continue the propaganda that opening up these offshore areas is going to lower people's gas prices."
Wednesday, Democrats touted a federal Energy Information Administration report that found that drilling in waters now off-limits "would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030."
The report also noted that oil prices are set on the world market, and that untapped U.S. reserves are too small to make much of a difference.
"Our people are not stupid," Bob Graham, a former Democratic governor and U.S. senator from Florida, said in a conference call arranged by the Obama campaign. "They understand … this issue has nothing to do with the current price of gasoline."
Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577