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.”
He said Democrats, who took control of Congress last year, have passed legislation increasing fuel-efficiency standards and mandating more renewable-energy use, so increased production is the only lever left to pull for midterm relief.
Other solutions such as halting the filling of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and calls for expanded production by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries also have failed to lower prices.
There are two roadblocks to expanded offshore drilling: an annual congressional prohibition and an executive order issued by Mr. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, in 1990.
But Mr. Bush refused to go first, saying he would lift the executive order only after Congress removed its ban.
“The president has chosen to speak softly when American consumers need him to wield a big stick,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research and former Republican congressional aide.
“He has the authority to tear up the executive moratorium immediately, and we believe he should,” Mr. Pyle said. “Eliminating this senseless ban would show the world that the United States is finally getting serious about producing more of its own energy instead of just talking about it. This was a missed opportunity.”
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that “it wouldn’t have an impact if we just did it.”
“It won’t get done without congressional action,” he said.
In addition to offshore drilling, Mr. Bush called on Congress to approve drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, extracting from oil shale rocks in the Green River Basin and increasing oil-refining capacity.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, on Tuesday announced that he now favors drilling in the outer continental shelf, which he previously opposed. Mr. Bush issued his statement a day after Mr. McCain’s speech, raising the level of national attention on the proposal.
Republicans are trampling one another in their rush to act.
On Wednesday, Mr. Fratto said there were no short-term fixes, then stumbled when confronted by a reporter with Mr. McCain’s position in favor of a gas-tax holiday for immediate relief.
“You know, he has a view on the tax moratorium, and that’s his position. And we - you know, we talked about looking forward,” Mr. Fratto said. “The president’s been looking at it, but what the president’s been focused on is, you know, the root of the problem, which is supply and demand.”
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, criticized offshore drilling as old-style thinking.
Polls released Wednesday showed Mr. McCain trailing Mr. Obama in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, and that was before Mr. McCain’s announcement in favor of offshore drilling, which historically has been unpopular with Florida voters.
Mr. McCain has taken a stance in favor of more energy production on all fronts, including a call Wednesday for the U.S. to build 45 more nuclear reactors by 2030.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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