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Bush urges Congress to lift offshore drilling ban

With gasoline topping $4 a gallon, drilling for oil off North Carolina's coast is becoming a campaign issue for U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates.

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WASHINGTON — With gasoline topping $4 a gallon, President Bush urged Congress on Wednesday to lift its long-standing ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, saying the U.S. needs to increase its energy production. Democrats quickly rejected the idea.

Oil exploration off the Outer Banks has quickly become a campaign issue in the races for U.S. Senate and North Carolina governor.

"There is no excuse for delay," the president said in a statement in the Rose Garden. With the presidential election just months away, Bush made a pointed attack on Democrats, accusing them of obstructing his energy proposals and blaming them for high gasoline costs. His proposal echoed a call by Republican presidential candidate John McCain to open the Continental Shelf for exploration.

"Every American that drives to work, purchases food or ships a product has felt the effect, and families across the country are looking to Washington for a response," Bush said.

Congressional Democrats were quick to reject the push for lifting the drilling moratorium, saying oil companies already have 68 million acres offshore waters under lease that are not being developed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Bush's proposals "another page from (an)... energy policy that was literally written by the oil industry – give away more public resources."

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole said she has "serious concerns" about oil and gas exploration off North Carolina's coast. Many state residents are worried about negative impacts on the environment, beach tourism and coastal military bases, Dole spokeswoman Katie Hallaway said.

Instead, Dole supports greater oil exploration in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico and extracting oil from shale rock in the Rocky Mountains, Hallaway said.

Her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Kay Hagan, also criticized the idea of drilling for oil off the North Carolina coast while pumping gas for people at a Raleigh station.

"If we drill for oil off the coast, it's going to take years and years (to see results). I am not in support of that," Hagan said.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor, has an active interest in exploring the possibility of drilling, according to a spokesman.

Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, McCrory's opponent in November, said she is "100 percent opposed" to drilling off the coast.

"Offshore drilling would take years to provide any benefit, while just one hurricane or Exxon Valdez incident could destroy North Carolina's coastline forever, along with the economy that depends on it," Perdue said in a statement.

A recent WRAL News poll found that 70 percent of state residents were open to the idea of offshore drilling.

"I think anything we can do that will increase our supply of gas and lower prices is a good thing at this point," driver Jessica Bell said.

"When you get into the prices affecting people's everyday decisions, you kind of do what you have to do," driver Christian Rich said.

Elizabeth Ouzts, director of Environment North Carolina, said gas price frustration should be channeled into expanding renewable energy sources and improving fuel efficiency, not threatening state beaches.

"Opening up our coasts to drilling is going to do nothing to lower gas prices, and it's going to harm our Outer Banks and other beaches," Ouzts said. "The real solution to our oil woes is to use less of it."

Sen. Barack Obama, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee, rejected lifting the drilling moratorium that has been supported by a succession of presidents for nearly two decades.

"This is not something that's going to give consumers short-term relief and it is not a long-term solution to our problems with fossil fuels generally and oil in particular," said Obama. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, lumping Bush with McCain, accused them of staging a "cynical campaign ploy" that won't help lower energy prices.

"Despite what President Bush, John McCain and their friends in the oil industry claim, we cannot drill our way out of this problem," Reid said. "The math is simple: America has just three percent of the world's oil reserves, but Americans use a quarter of its oil."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto retorted: "Anyone out there saying that something can be done overnight, or in a matter of months, to deal with high gasoline prices is trying to fool people. There is no tool in the toolbox out there that will lower gas prices overnight, or in weeks, or probably not even in months."

Bush said offshore drilling could yield up to 18 billion barrels of oil over time, although it would take years for production to start. Bush also said offshore drilling would take pressure off prices over time.

There are two prohibitions on offshore drilling, one imposed by Congress and another by executive order signed by Bush's father in 1990. Bush's brother, Jeb, fiercely opposed offshore drilling when he was governor of Florida. What the president now proposes would rescind his father's decision - but the president took the position that Congress has to act first and then he would follow behind.

Asked why Bush doesn't act first and lift the ban, Keith Hennessey, the director of the president's economic council, said: "He thinks that probably the most productive way to work with this Congress is to try to do it in tandem."

Before Bush spoke, the House Appropriations Committee postponed a vote it had scheduled for Wednesday on legislation doing the opposite of what the president asked - extending Congress' ban on offshore drilling. Lawmakers said they wanted to focus on a disaster relief bill for the battered Midwest.

Bush also proposed opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, lifting restrictions on oil shale leasing in the Green River Basin of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming and easing the regulatory process to expand oil refining capacity.

With Americans deeply pessimistic about the economy, Bush tried to put on the onus on Congress. He acknowledged that his new proposals would take years to have a full effect, hardly the type of news that will help drivers at the gas stations now. The White House says no quick fix exists.

Still, Bush said Congress was obstructing progress - and directly contributing to consumers' pain at the pump.

"I know the Democratic leaders have opposed some of these policies in the past," Bush said. "Now that their opposition has helped drive gas prices to record levels, I ask them to reconsider their positions."

Bush said that if congressional leaders head home for their July 4 recess without taking action, they will need to explain why "$4 a gallon gasoline is not enough incentive for them to act. And Americans will rightly ask how high gas prices have to rise before the Democratic-controlled Congress will do something about it."

Bush said restrictions on offshore drilling have become "outdated and counterproductive."

In a nod to the environmental arguments against drilling, Bush said technology has come a long way. These days, he said, oil exploration off the coastline can be done in a way that "is out of sight, protects coral reefs and habitats, and protects against oil spills."

Congressional Democrats, joined by some GOP lawmakers from coastal states, have opposed lifting the prohibition that has barred energy companies from waters along both the East and West coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for 27 years.

On Monday, McCain made lifting the federal ban on offshore oil and gas development a key part of his energy plan. McCain said states should be allowed to pursue energy exploration in waters near their coasts and get some of the royalty revenue.

Obama retorted that the Arizona senator had flip-flopped on that issue.