ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Friday he would be willing to support limited additional offshore oil drilling if that's what it takes to enact a comprehensive policy to foster fuel-efficient autos and develop alternate energy sources.
Shifting from his previous opposition to expanded offshore drilling, the Illinois senator told a Florida newspaper he could get behind a compromise with Republicans and oil companies to prevent gridlock over energy.
Republican rival John McCain, who earlier dropped his opposition to offshore drilling, has been criticizing Obama on the stump and in broadcast ads for clinging to his opposition as gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon. Polls indicate these attacks have helped McCain gain ground on Obama.
"My interest is in making sure we've got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices," Obama said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post.
"If, in order to get that passed, we have to compromise in terms of a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage _ I don't want to be so rigid that we can't get something done."
Asked about Obama's comment, McCain said, "We need oil drilling and we need it now offshore. He has consistently opposed it. He has opposed nuclear power. He has opposed reprocessing. He has opposed storage." The GOP candidate said Obama doesn't have a plan equal to the nation's energy challenges.
In Congress, both parties have fought bitterly over energy policy for weeks, with Republicans pressing for more domestic oil drilling and Democrats railing about oil company profits. Despite hundreds of hours of House and Senate floor debate, lawmakers will leave Washington for their five-week summer hiatus this week with an empty tank.
"The Republicans and the oil companies have been really beating the drums on drilling," Obama said in the Post interview. "And so we don't want gridlock. We want to get something done."
Later, Obama issued a written statement warmly welcoming a proposal sent to Senate leaders Friday by 10 senators _ five from each party. Their proposal seeks to break the impasse over offshore oil development and is expected to be examined more closely in September after Congress returns from its summer recess.
The so-called Gang of 10 plan would lift drilling bans in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, but retain an environmental buffer zone extending 50 miles off Florida's beaches and in the South Atlantic off Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, but only if a state agrees to the oil and gas development along its coast. The states would share in revenues from oil and gas development.
Drilling bans along the Pacific coast and the Northeast would remain in place under this compromise.
The plan also includes energy initiatives Obama has endorsed. "It would repeal tax breaks for oil companies so that we can invest billions in fuel-efficient cars, help our automakers re-tool, and make a genuine commitment to renewable sources of energy like wind power, solar power, and the next generation of clean, affordable biofuels," Obama noted.
"Like all compromises, it also includes steps that I haven't always supported," Obama conceded. "I remain skeptical that new offshore drilling will bring down gas prices in the short-term or significantly reduce our oil dependence in the long-term, though I do welcome the establishment of a process that will allow us to make future drilling decisions based on science and fact."
Nevertheless, Obama said the plan, put forward by mostly moderates and conservatives led by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., "represents a good faith effort at a new bipartisan beginning."
Earlier in the day, Obama pushed for a windfall profits tax to fund $1,000 emergency rebate checks for consumers besieged by high energy costs, a counter to McCain's call for more offshore drilling.
The pitch for putting some of the economic burden of $4-a-gallon gasoline on the oil industry served a dual purpose for Obama: It allowed him to talk up an economic issue, seen by many as a strength for Democrats and a weakness for Republicans, and at the same time respond to criticism from McCain that Obama's opposition to offshore drilling leads to higher prices at the pump.
In linking McCain to the unpopular President Bush, Obama struck a theme from Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 campaign against President Jimmy Carter by asking a town-hall audience in St. Petersburg: "Do you think you are better off than you were four years ago or eight years ago? If you aren't better off, can you afford another four years?"
Obama primed the crowd by noting new government figures showing 51,000 jobs lost last month and citing 460,000 jobs lost over the last seven months. He tied other bad economic news from the Bush administration to McCain and offered his energy program as one route to relief.
"This rebate will be enough to offset the increased cost of gas for a working family over the next four months," Obama said during a two-day campaign swing in Florida. "It will be enough to cover the entire increase in your heating bills. Or you could use the rebate for any of your other bills, or even to pay down your own debt."
(This version CORRECTS paragraph 10 that compromise would retain a buffer zone of 50 miles off Florida Gulf beaches, instead of allow drilling within 50 miles.)