WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday lifted an executive ban on offshore oil drilling and challenged Congress to follow suit, aiming to turn the enormous public frustration about gasoline prices into political leverage. Democratic lawmakers rejected Bush's plan as a symbolic stunt.
With gas prices topping $4.10 a gallon nationally, Bush made his most assertive move to extend oil exploration, an energy priority of his presidency. By lifting the executive prohibition against coastal drilling, Bush rescinded a White House policy that his own father put in place in 1990.
The move will have no practical effect unless Congress acts, too. Both executive and legislative bans must be lifted before offshore exploration can happen.
Bush had called on Congress a month ago to go first, then reversed himself on Monday. He said the country could no longer afford to wait.
"Failure to act is unacceptable. It's unacceptable to me and it's unacceptable to the American people," Bush said in an event held in the Rose Garden.
"Democratic leaders can show that they have finally heard the frustrations of the American people by matching the action I've taken today, repealing the congressional ban, and passing legislation to facilitate responsible offshore exploration," Bush said.
The president's direct link between record gas prices and offshore drilling glossed over a key point. Even if Congress agreed, the exploration for oil would take years to produce real results. It is not projected to reduce gas prices in the short term. Even the White House routinely emphasizes there is no quick fix.
That did not stop Bush from building his case around today's prices at the pump.
He said every extra dollar that families must spend on gas is one they could be using to put food on their table or to send a child to school. The American people, he said, are now "waiting to see what the Congress will do."
The White House says that acting now on a long-term solution would send a serious signal to the market that more oil supply will be coming on line. That, in turn, could ease oil prices, advocates say. Business groups and many Republican lawmakers applauded the move to expand the energy supply in the U.S.
Democrats were unmoved.
"The Bush plan is a hoax," responded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "It will neither reduce gas prices nor increase energy independence."
Several Democratic leaders in Congress said oil companies are already sitting on millions of acres of public and coastal lands.
Yet a proposal by Democrats to release oil from an emergency reserve has been rejected by the White House as a gimmick that won't reduce prices.
So the election-year stalemate remains.
Congressional Democrats, joined by some GOP lawmakers from coastal states, have long 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. A succession of presidents, including the current one, has sided with Congress for each of the last 27 years in barring drilling in these waters.
The main goal has been to protect beaches and coastal states' tourism economies. But Bush says that with today's technology, exploration can be conducted along the Outer Continental Shelf in ways that keep the drilling out of sight and protect the environment.
The congressional ban is renewed yearly, typically as part of a spending bill. The White House said it was too soon to comment on a potential Bush veto.
Under Bush's proposal, states would help decide how drilling would be conducted off their shores. It is unclear how much oil would be available. Bush said it could eventually be enough to produce 10 years' worth of America's current oil production.
Both presidential campaigns weighed in.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called Bush's move "a very important signal" and prodded his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, to drop his opposition to offshore drilling. "If we can show that we have significant oil reserves off our coasts, that will clearly affect the futures market and affect the price of oil," McCain said.
Obama favors another economic stimulus package that includes energy rebates, as well as stepped up efforts to develop alternative fuels. "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," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement. "But most experts, even within the Bush administration, concede it would do neither."
Environmental groups also criticized Bush.
The public, though, is growing impatient for answers.
Nearly half the people surveyed by the Pew Research Center last month said they now consider energy exploration and drilling more important than conservation, compared with a little over a third who felt that way only five months ago. The sharpest shift in attitude came from those who had previously viewed exploration as a less important priority, including people who identified themselves as liberals, independents and Democrats.