WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Wednesday will call on Congress to pass legislation lifting a ban on offshore oil drilling as he seeks remedies to record-high energy prices, the White House said.
“With gasoline now over $4 a gallon, tomorrow he will explicitly call on Congress to also pass legislation lifting the congressional ban on safe, environmentally friendly offshore oil drilling,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said on Tuesday.
Differences over energy policy have led to a political spat between Republicans and Democrats, and how to deal with soaring gasoline prices has emerged as a major issue in the presidential campaigns before the November election.
Republicans have called for ending a ban on offshore drilling that has been in place since 1981, but Democrats have repeatedly rebuffed such attempts, citing environmental concerns.
In the race for the White House, Republican John McCain supports ending the ban on offshore oil exploration and Democrat Barack Obama opposes it.
In Houston on Tuesday, McCain called for lifting the federal moratorium on offshore exploration and production as part of a plan to help curb U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The Arizona senator also has proposed temporarily lifting a tax on gasoline over the summer to give consumers a break from soaring fuel prices.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said lifting the offshore drilling ban would have little immediate impact on the energy problem.
“The Energy Information Administration says that even if we open the coasts to oil drilling, that won’t have a significant impact on prices until 2030,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said in an e-mail.
Some experts say Bush could take action to allow offshore drilling, but Perino said, “The president is not taking any executive action tomorrow.”
Senior administration officials said presidential action alone cannot allow offshore drilling to proceed because Congress must overturn its moratorium.
“Signing leases and drilling in these areas requires action from both Congress and the president,” one official said on condition of anonymity.
Bush has visited Saudi Arabia twice this year and sought help in dealing with the high oil prices that threaten the U.S. economy.
In his energy announcement on Wednesday, Bush was not expected to voice support specifically for any of several proposals in Congress to lift the ban on offshore drilling, but rather he will call on Congress to pass legislation to accomplish that goal, an administration official said.
Bush and Republican lawmakers have also been pressing for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and drilling, which Democrats oppose.
“The president’s proposal sounds like another page from the administration’s energy policy that was literally written by the oil industry: give away more public resources to the very same oil companies that are sitting on 68 million acres of federal lands they’ve already leased,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement.
Pelosi said last week that opening the wildlife refuge in Alaska would reduce U.S. gasoline prices by one penny per gallon, and she and other Democrats blame Bush’s energy policies for the rise in gasoline prices.
Bush has blamed Democrats, who control Congress, for blocking efforts to increase domestic oil production.
“The president believes Congress shouldn’t waste any more time,” Perino said.
Additional reporting by Chris Baltimore and JoAnne Allen; Editing by Doina Chiacu