- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain proposed lifting the federal ban on more offshore oil drilling Monday, but a new poll shows most voters want the government to go further by sinking oil wells in nationally protected wildlife areas.

The Fox 5/The Washington Times/Rasmussen Reports survey found that 53 percent of voters think the United States should start drilling for oil in nature preserves such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to reduce dependence on foreign crude.

About a third of Americans opposed the idea and 14 percent said they are not sure, according to the telephone survey conducted last week.

The campaigns acknowledge that high gas prices have become the dominant issue of the presidential race, with motorists paying an average of more than $4 per gallon, but neither the likely Democratic nor Republican presidential nominee agrees with drilling in wildlife preserves.

In a preview of a speech to be delivered Tuesday, Mr. McCain called for more oil exploration in the U.S. but said he does not want to go as far as drilling in off-limits federal lands. The speech will mark the start of a weeklong effort to draw distinctions on energy policy between the senator from Arizona and his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Asked about his newfound embrace of some new drilling, Mr. McCain said he maintains that there should be limits, including federal lands now off-limits. “I believe ANWR is a pristine area,” he said.

Mr. Obama repeatedly sided with environmentalists in Senate votes to oppose more domestic oil drilling. He ruled out drilling in ANWR, which he says would irreversibly damage pristine Alaskan landscape without producing enough oil to significantly reduce gasoline prices or improve U.S. energy security.

“John McCain’s plan to simply drill our way out of our energy crisis is the same misguided approach backed by President Bush - the same approach that has failed our families and only serves to benefit the big oil companies,” said Obama campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan. “Barack Obama’s plan offers comprehensive change that makes significant investments in alternative forms of energy to secure our energy independence, make energy more affordable for our families and protect our health and environment.”

Proponents of drilling in ANWR have been close to success several times. In 1995, President Clinton vetoed a bill to open the reserve to drilling, and it fell victim to House-Senate bickering in 2005.

With voters feeling the pinch at the pump and energy prices expected to keep rising this year, drilling in protected nature settings won support from 72 percent of Republican voters, 36 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of voters not affiliated with a major party, according to the poll.

The widespread public support for more drilling also bolsters congressional Republicans’ stance on one of the few issues where they have traction in an otherwise perilous election year.

House Republicans regularly criticize Democratic leaders for ignoring calls to expand domestic oil production as gasoline prices climb.

“Each and every day over the next five months leading up to this election, Republicans are going to force the Congress to deal with this issue,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Sunday on CNN. “It’s time to be honest with the American people and show them that if [Democrats] don’t want to drill, show the American people you don’t want to drill.”

Democratic leaders said lies by the oil industry are driving public support for parkland drilling.

“Big Oil has long orchestrated a massive propaganda campaign that sells the misconception that the only places where untapped oil and gas sources still exist are in nationally protected areas,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. “The facts prove otherwise.”

He said oil companies already sit on leases for 68 million acres of federal land that, if tapped, could gush 4.8 million barrels of oil a day. He said that is six times what ANWR drilling would produce at its peak.

Mr. McCain’s campaign said he would allow states to expand drilling by taking two steps: lifting the presidential order put in place by President George H.W. Bush and extended by Mr. Clinton that enforces a moratorium on offshore drilling; and pressing Congress to lift its own legislative ban, passed every year as part of spending bills.

Mr. McCain said the limits of state control would be up for negotiation and that the federal government should not force states to allow drilling. But he said the federal government should offer states better terms for royalties to make it worth their while to allow drilling.

“I don’t want to dictate to the states what they should do, but I think states can be provided with certain incentives,” Mr. McCain said.

The poll showed that 27 percent of Americans are ready to park their cars and use mass transit on a regular basis if gasoline costs rise to $5 a gallon.

An additional 15 percent would opt for bus or train at $8 a gallon and a further 10 percent at $10 a gallon or higher. About 16 percent said they already regularly use mass transit, according to the survey.

The average price of regular gasoline hit a record $4.08 a gallon Monday, according to AAA.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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