DEBORAH AMOS, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Deborah Amos.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
We're about to examine what the presidential candidates want to do about oil prices. The big question is whether any of their plans will help.
AMOS: John McCain and Barack Obama agree the price of oil is painfully high. They disagree on what to do about it. And we begin with one of their major differences, on offshore oil drilling. President Bush has lifted a ban on drilling in many areas. That ban came partly in response to a 1969 spill in California.
But it takes a while to open up the sea floor and it will be the next president who decides whether to allow the actual drilling. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The candidates were on record about new drilling a month before President Bush lifted the 27-year drilling moratorium this week. Here's Senator John McCain speaking in mid-June in oil-friendly Houston.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Tomorrow I'll call for lifting the federal moratorium for states that choose to permit exploration. I think that this, and perhaps providing additional incentives, for states to permit exploration off their coasts would be very helpful in the short term in resolving our energy crisis.
JOYCE: Days later Senator Barack Obama fired back in Jacksonville, Florida, where drilling isn't such a popular idea.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): It would have long-term consequences for our coastlines but no short-term benefits since it would take at least ten years to get any oil.
JOYCE: And that's not soon enough, he says.
Sen. OBAMA: Offshore drilling would not lower gas prices today.
JOYCE: Actually, no one says drilling offshore would change gas prices today. Yes, the Department of Energy does say there may be 18 billion barrels of oil in coastal waters, but they also say drilling for it would not have a significant impact on production or prices until 2030. Even people in the oil industry say drilling won't ease the oil pinch.
Matthew Simmons is head of Simmons and Company, among the largest banks investing in energy.
Mr. MATTHEW SIMMONS (Simmons and Company): We basically wasted away 20 years and now basically it's a terrific idea but we ran out the clock. It's really misleading to hold that out as a panacea. It won't work. It might work for our grandchildren.
JOYCE: Geologists have identified reservoirs or undersea structures that might contain oil, but Simmons says that's guesswork.
Mr. SIMMONS: We don't have any idea whether there's any there. Once you identify a large structure, until you test the whole perimeter of the structure you really don't have any idea how much of the structure is oil-bearing.
JOYCE: But first the government has to lease the offshore sites to oil companies. The companies have to probe the seabed to find out what's there, then there's years of exploratory drilling; if, says Simmons, anyone can find rigs to do the drilling.
Mr. SIMMONS: The problem is that the worldwide capacity to building rigs now has a backlog going out to about 2013. And we won't add enough rigs to even start to replace the very old rig fleet that we have.
JOYCE: All of that before any oil actually comes out of the seabed. Some in the oil business are more optimistic. Scott Smith is vice president of the energy engineering and construction company Black and Beach.
Mr. SCOTT SMITH (Black and Beach): I think it's shortsighted in my opinion to think about it as it's not going to make a difference. This is just one piece of the puzzle. We know that there's a lot of uncertainty around how much reserves and production that would bring to bear. And I think parading additional options makes more sense than keeping those off the table.
JOYCE: Smith says it isn't likely oil companies will actually recover the 18 billion barrels the government estimates is out there - maybe half that. But, he says, oil exploration is full of surprises.
Mr. SMITH: As you drill and you learn more about the geology in the region, you tend to find that there's more resources there than what you first thought.
JOYCE: He also says drilling is only half the job. America also needs to curb its thirst for gas by making vehicles more fuel efficient. Senator McCain says there's more than just prices here. He says there's a psychological lift from knowing the country is trying to replace foreign oil. But Senator Obama counters that the environmental price is too high. Environmental groups agree. They argue that while there have been few serious spills from rigs, the payoff doesn't justify the risk to beaches and wildlife.
Ultimately Congress will have to take a stand. Although the White House has lifted its ban on new drilling, Congress also enacted a moratorium beginning in 1982 that only Congress can remove.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
AMOS: To read more about the presidential candidates' views on issues from the Iraq War to tax policy, go to NPR.org's Election 2008 page.