- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2008

NEWS ANALYSIS:

High oil prices have finally lubricated the creaky wheels of Washington politics.

With President Bush’s announcement Wednesday that he now supports oil exploration in the outer continental shelf, Republicans from top to bottom have embraced more drilling as the answer to rising gas prices and put Democrats on the spot to come up with their own solutions to record-high fuel costs that are enraging voters.

“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,” Mr. Bush said. “If congressional leaders leave for the Fourth of July recess without taking action, they will need to explain why $4-a-gallon gasoline is not enough incentive for them to act.”

But Democrats on Wednesday said they remain opposed to expanded U.S. production.

“We cannot drill our way out of this problem,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “The math is simple: America has just 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves, but Americans use a quarter of its oil. And the Energy Information Administration says that even if we do open the coasts to oil drilling, prices wouldn’t drop until 2030.”

Instead, Democrats spread the blame for high prices.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said oil companies already have unused oil leases for 68 million acres of public lands. On Thursday, freshman Democratic House members will announce a bill that requires oil and gas companies to exploit those leases instead of opening more lands.

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, spearheaded a letter from 16 senators that blamed China for the problem and told the Bush administration to use an upcoming economic meeting to insist that the Chinese government drop its fuel subsidies.

Other Democrats straddled the divide.

Mark Warner, the Democratic nominee for Virginia’s open U.S. Senate seat, expressed measured support for offshore oil and gas exploration. Still, he derided his Republican opponent, James S. Gilmore III, who for months has been calling for more drilling as a way of sending a calming signal to the markets.

Instead, Mr. Warner called for a crackdown on speculators, whom he blamed for high prices.

Both parties are grappling with what has become the nation’s third energy shock, and polls show Americans are increasingly ready to expand drilling, even in protected preserves.

Robbie Diamond, president and chief executive officer of Securing America’s Future Energy, noted a real shift.

“We’ve had decades where people were unwilling, and politicians were unwilling, to seriously look at the resources in our own back yard and off our coast. Suddenly it seems we’re at a tipping point where many politicians are willing to make serious proposals about doing just that,” he said. “There’s only so long that people can blame outside parties such as OPEC, Big Oil or speculators for our problems, when fundamentally our problem is supply and demand.”

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