US President George W. Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to end a ban on offshore oil drilling, responding to consumer anxiety over soaring gasoline prices with a plan sure to anger environmentalists.
“Every American who drives to work, purchases food or ships a product has felt the effect. And families across our country are looking to Washington for a response,” Bush said.
As average US pump prices pierced the US$4-a-gallon (US$1.06-a-liter) level for the first time this month, up more than US$1 from a year ago, energy policy has become a key issue in the presidential race ahead of November elections.
Bush said opening federal lands off the US coast — where oil drilling has been banned by both a presidential executive order and a congressional moratorium — could yield about 18 billion barrels of oil.
That would meet current US consumption for about two-and-a-half years, but it would likely take a decade or more to find the oil and produce it.
The short-term impact on oil prices is open to debate. The prospect of more energy supply down the road could calm nervous traders who see a looming global oil crunch but any actual supply would be years away, even if Congress acted quickly.
Congress banned most offshore drilling in 1981. Bush’s father, former president George Bush, followed suit with an executive order banning drilling in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska — the worst tanker accident in US history.
The White House said Congress should lift the moratorium first and then Bush would end the executive order because presidential action alone would not lead to new offshore drilling.
Bush’s latest energy plan adds intensity to a war of words on Capitol Hill over who is to blame. If lawmakers leave for their July 4 holiday without action, they will face the wrath of their constituents, Bush said. Bush and fellow Republicans have repeatedly blamed Democrats for blocking legislation that would open offshore lands and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling.
“Democrats on Capitol Hill have rejected virtually every proposal and now Americans are paying the price at the pump for this obstruction,” Bush said.
Democrats in turn say 80 percent of the oil in the Outer Continental Shelf is in federal lands already open to drilling, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, which hold 107 billion barrels of oil — equal to 14 years of current US consumption.
“The White House has become a ventriloquist for the oil and gas industry — repeating the requests of the oil and gas industry that they be allowed to destroy the most pristine areas of our country,” Democratic Representative Edward Markey said.
About 60 percent of Americans support government moves to encourage more oil drilling and refinery construction as a way to combat soaring energy prices — but the same number also profess to be in favor of conservation, a Reuters/Zogby poll released on Wednesday showed.
Separately, Congress has enacted a US$290 billion farm bill for a second time after a clerical error in the first bill threatened delivery of US food aid abroad.
The Senate voted 80-14 to override Bush’s veto of the legislation, more than the two-thirds majority necessary to enact it. Bush vetoed the bill for a second time on Wednesday, and the House voted 317-109 to override it a few hours later.
Most of the bill was enacted last month, when both houses easily overrode Bush’s first veto. But 34 pages of the bill, which covered the extension of foreign aid programs, were mistakenly omitted from the parchment copy Congress sent to the White House, so that section did not become law.
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