- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2008

President Bush repealed an executive order Monday banning offshore drilling that puts increasing pressure on the Democratic-controlled Congress to do the same as both parties maneuver around the politics of escalating fuel costs and court cash-strapped voters.

“With this action, the executive branch’s restrictions on this exploration have been cleared away. This means that the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress,” Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House.

Democrats called the president’s move “a political stunt” and a “gimmick.” Oil companies, they said, are not utilizing the offshore oil fields for which they already have access.

“Once again, the oilman in the White House is echoing the demands of Big Oil,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Almost a month ago, Mr. Bush called on Congress to lift their ban on offshore drilling and said he would lift the presidential prohibition, instituted by his father in 1990, whenever Democrats did the same.

On Monday, he did what many said he should have done last month, acting unilaterally to put maximum stress on Democrats’ opposition to offshore drilling, which he said could yield enough oil to supply the U.S. for 10 years.

“The time for action is now. This is a difficult period for millions of American families … They are rightly angered by Congress’ failure to enact common-sense solutions,” Mr. Bush said.

The Bush administration’s political calculation is that with gas heading toward $5 a gallon for car drivers, public demand for some meaningful action has grown so intense that Democrats will be forced to capitulate or suffer the consequences.

Polls have shown increasing support among the public for increased domestic drilling, and Democratic leaders have begun to see some in their party begin to break rank and support the idea as well.

The upcoming election in the fall only maximizes the potential negative political effect for Democrats.

“I’m sure Americans will be watching what they do,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, of Illinois, quickly criticized Mr. Bush’s move.

“If offshore drilling would provide short-term relief at the pump or a long-term strategy for energy independence, it would be worthy of our consideration, regardless of the risks. But most experts, even within the Bush administration, concede it would do neither,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the first vote he will hold this week will be to crack down on excessive speculation in oil futures, which he said is “one of the significant problems” causing higher prices.

The White House, and many oil market experts, say that opening up the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) off U.S. coasts, along with the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, will send a meaningful signal to the market and bring down costs, despite the fact that no oil would actually come on line for several years.

The Institute for Energy Research (IER), an advocacy group considered by some to be allied with energy companies, estimates that the OCS contains about 86 billion barrels of oil, citing a report by the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

The U.S. consumes about 7.5 billion barrels of oil a year, according to IER.

Democratic leaders are calling on the president to release a “small portion” of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. They already have passed a law to temporarily stop the administration from continuing to fill the SPR, which is at 700 million barrels of oil.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, called on Mr. Bush to release 500,000 barrels of oil per day from the SPR for the next six months, which would end up reducing U.S. reserves by about 100 million barrels, or 15 percent.

Mr. Markey said such an action would reduce prices per barrel by about $25 within two weeks.

The White House said the Democrat was overstating the impact of SPR withdrawals.

“What we have seen in the past when people have tried to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to affect price is that it hasn’t worked,” Mrs. Perino said. “It might bring it down a penny or two, and that’s not enough. What we want to do is get to the root cause of the problem.”

Democrats also say that oil companies are sitting on about 68 million acres of leased oil fields off of U.S. coasts, but are declining to drill to drive up prices and maximize profits, and that there are oil fields the government could lease but hasn’t.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman also said “it’s clear that there’s an awful lot of leasing that this administration could be doing if they chose to do so, and they have not chosen to do so.”

The White House rejected the idea that oil companies were failing to extract oil from fields they already own in the OCS.

“It doesn’t make economic sense to think that anyone is sitting on any extra oil that they could be selling,” Mrs. Perino said.

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