(Updates throughout, adds Obama comment; previous SAN ANTONIO)
By Jeff Mason
HOUSTON, June 17 (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain called on Tuesday for energy conservation and an end to a ban on U.S. oil and natural gas exploration to help curb the nation’s “dangerous” dependence on foreign oil.
Rising oil and gasoline prices have put energy concerns at the center of the contest between McCain and presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama to succeed President George W. Bush in the November election.
McCain has proposed temporarily lifting a tax on gasoline over the summer, but other than that, neither candidate has a quick fix for bringing fuel prices down.
The Arizona senator promised to lay out a specific plan for reaching energy independence in the coming days.
“The straightest, swiftest path to energy security is to produce more, use less, and find new sources of power,” McCain said to applause from an enthusiastic crowd in Texas.
One component of a long-term plan will be efficiency. Cutting back on energy usage — a key strategy of Europe’s efforts to fight global warming — was critical in the United States, McCain said.
“In the face of climate change and other serious challenges, energy conservation is no longer just a moral luxury or a personal virtue,” he said. “Conservation serves a critical national goal.”
In a proposal that critics say clashes with his environmental credentials, McCain said the United States should tap some 21 billion barrels of proven oil reserves which are left untouched because of a federal moratorium on exploration and production.
“I believe it is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions and to put our own reserves to use,” he said. “We can do this in ways that are consistent with sensible standards of environmental protection.”
Democrats, including Obama, slammed McCain, who has sought to distance himself from Bush on environmental issues, for calling for further drilling.
“I think this is another example of where John McCain has taken the politically expedient way out,” Obama told reporters on his campaign plane, saying offshore drilling would not lower gasoline prices in the short term.
“At best you’re looking at five years or more down the road and even the most optimistic assumptions indicate that offshore drilling might reduce the overall world price of oil by a few cents.”
McCain has sought to differentiate himself with Bush by pushing a plan to fight global warming. On Tuesday his campaign released a television ad saying McCain “stood up” to the president on climate change.
Obama has also made energy policy and the fight against global warming a key part of his campaign, criticizing the proposal on gas taxes as ineffective and saying his plan to cut emissions is more aggressive than McCain’s.
McCain criticized Obama for promising a “windfall profits” tax on oil companies if the Democrat wins the White House.
“All a windfall profits tax will accomplish is to increase our dependence on foreign oil, and hinder exactly the kind of domestic exploration and production we need,” he said. “I’m all for recycling — but it’s better applied to paper and plastic than to the failed policies of the 1970s.”
McCain said energy prices will continue to rise, citing oil ministers and investment firms that have predicted $200-a-barrel oil and $7-a-gallon gasoline.
McCain has previously said he would break with Bush and previous administrations over energy. He also called for a reform of laws and regulations that govern the oil futures markets to make the rules more effective. (Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Eric Walsh) (To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)