From the San Francisco Chronicle:
On the surface, President Bush’s decision Monday to lift the presidential moratorium on offshore drilling – a policy initiated by his father and extended by Bill Clinton – appeared only to embolden Democrats in their efforts to preserve the 27-year-old federal ban.
Congress has renewed its ban on drilling on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts every year since 1981, and top Democrats said Monday they will do so again this year, despite the pressure from Bush. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Bush’s action a hoax that “will neither reduce gas prices nor increase energy independence.”
But environmentalists still have deep concerns: Bush’s decision knocks out one of the two layers of federal protection against new offshore exploration. They also worry about a growing willingness among Democrats to support new drilling in certain areas to address rising gas prices.
Republicans have been stepping up efforts to kill the congressional moratorium, and California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said she’s nervous that, at some point, one of the GOP measures might prevail.
A House Appropriations subcommittee defeated an effort to eliminate the drilling ban last month on a 9-6 party line vote, but Republicans plan more such votes for this summer and fall. Environmentalists say the votes could be close.
“The risk (to the moratorium) is elevated beyond belief,” said Richard Charter, who’s lobbying the issue for the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.
The White House and GOP leaders in Congress have long sought to end the ban, but now see a major opening as polls show that gas prices of more than $4 a gallon are shifting public attitudes about drilling.
Bush’s use of his bully pulpit also reinforced the campaign message of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who wants to lift the moratorium and allow coastal states to choose whether to allow drilling. McCain praised Bush’s announcement as a very important signal.
Democrats point to a U.S. Energy Information Administration assessment that lifting the ban on offshore drilling would not yield any new oil before 2012, and would likely have an insignificant impact on oil prices.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “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.”
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, has endorsed lifting the moratorium if states could decide whether to allow drilling. But California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes the effort, and released a statement Monday supporting the ban.