- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Environmental groups are scrambling to shore up opposition in the Democrat-led Congress to more offshore oil drilling, countering the push for added domestic production by President Bush and voters pinched by rising gasoline prices.

“There are plenty of us on the other side creating pressure, too,” said Friends of the Earth, which is unleashing a campaign targeting select congressional districts to fend off calls for Congress to let the offshore drilling ban expire Sept. 30.

The 40-year-old advocacy group is increasing its lobbying on Capitol Hill and rallying activists nationwide with e-mail alerts, newsletters and phone calls warning against what they see as a “land grab by the oil industry” that will not lower gas prices, he said.

Meg Boyle, a climate policy specialist for the group.

The environmentalist movement forms a crucial piece of the Democrats’ base, and the two remain close allies, but the gas-price crisis tests the relationship.

Likely Democratic targets of environmentalists are Pennsylvania, who supports offshore drilling.

Democrats wavering on offshore drilling include Montana.

The debate intensified Monday when Mr. Bush lifted the executive ban on offshore oil drilling and called on Congress to lift its drilling prohibition, saying American families are “rightly angered by Congress’ failure to enact common-sense solutions.”

“The only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress,” Mr. Bush said. “The time for action is now.”

Republicans roundly applauded the announcement while Democrats called it a political stunt and accused the president of being allied with the oil industry.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, is careful to avoid tough votes that would pit the party’s members against environmentalists. She employs strict procedures that prevent floor amendments that Republicans otherwise could use to force a vote on offshore oil drilling.

The House is expected to take up the Democrats’ so-called “use-it-or-lose-it” bill Thursday. The measure would force oil companies to surrender oil and gas leases on federal land where they are not drilling.

Democrats have accused the oil industry of “warehousing” the 88 million acres of land on which they hold leases so as to keep the domestic oil supply lower and prices higher.

Congress has blocked offshore drilling for 27 years, reauthorizing the ban annually. Drilling also is prevented by an executive order signed by President Clinton and the current president, until Monday.

Long-standing support in Congress for the ban, which prohibits oil rigs from operating on the East and West costs and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, has wavered lately with gasoline topping $4 per gallon and voters clamoring for relief.

“The most important thing to get out there is that it is a false solution,” said David Willett, citing a Department of Energy report indicating that more offshore drilling would not significantly reduce oil prices.

He nevertheless acknowledged the appeal of drilling among voters and therefore lawmakers as well.

A Rasmussen Reports survey last month found 64 percent of voters think it is at least somewhat likely that offshore drilling will reduce gas prices, while 27 percent were not convinced.

“There is undeniably pressure on everyone in Congress now because people are hurting,” Mr. Willett said. “But I think the Democratic delegation in general understands that offshore drilling isn’t going to affect [oil prices].”

The Sierra Club is promoting the same energy plans as Democratic leaders, including a crackdown on speculation in the oil futures market that they blame for artificially inflating prices.

The group also echoes the call by Mrs. Pelosi for the administration to release oil from the Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, proposes to fund by raising taxes on the oil industry.

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