President Bush lifted a long-standing executive ban on offshore drilling on Monday, a largely symbolic move designed to push Congress to do the same.
With two oil drilling bans — one executive and one congressional — Bush's move to lift the ban his father first signed in 1990 accomplishes nothing alone. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate also must agree to lift the congressional ban, and they remain staunchly opposed.
"I committed to lift an executive prohibition on this exploration if Congress did so, tailoring my executive action to match what Congress passed. It's been almost a month since I urged Congress to act — and they've done nothing," Bush said in a Rose Garden address Monday. "This means that the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress. Now the ball is squarely in Congress' court."
Even if Congress did vote to end the federal moratorium, Florida's Gulf Coast is protected by a separate 2006 law that also would need dismantling before drilling could proceed.
"We had three layers in protection in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, we're down to two," said Mark Ferrulo, director of Progress Florida, a nonprofit group that tracks issues, including drilling.
The 2006 federal legislation gave 8.3-million acres off the west coast of Florida to the oil industry, and in return Florida got a law enacted that creates a buffer zone of protection until 2022. It covers 125 miles off the Panhandle and more than 200 miles off the state's west-central coast.
Democrats including presidential candidate Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decried Bush's move to lift the executive ban. He is "echoing the demands of Big Oil," Pelosi said in a statement.
Democrats stress that opening waters to drilling along the nation's East and West coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would not affect gas prices for many years.
"The president's lifting the moratorium is not going to do anything to the price of gas, because gasoline has gone up because of unregulated speculation," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement. "If you want to do something about the price of gas, you've got to wean yourselves from the dependence on oil by going to alternative fuels."
But Republicans, who are pushing legislation to lift the ban in both chambers, hope to recruit enough Democrats to force the issue.
With gas prices soaring past $4 a gallon, members of Congress are saying there is no bigger issue among their constituents. They want to do what they can to appear to be addressing prices.
Last week, a bipartisan group of 10 senators met to discuss a compromise on increasing domestic oil production, which included lifting the ban on offshore drilling.
"In light of the current energy crisis, Congress must take steps to develop domestic resources while encouraging conservation," Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said in a statement. "I look forward to Congress acting to make it possible for states to engage in offshore development if they so choose, and respect the wishes of states like Florida that wish to keep drilling at a distance that doesn't impact our environment, our economy, or the missions of the United States military."
The federal Minerals Management Service estimates that 80 percent of the nation's offshore gas and oil reserves already can be leased for drilling, though experts say the estimates are rough.
The United States imports 60 percent of its oil and uses more than 20-million barrels a day.