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President Bush is calling on Congress to lift a federal ban on offshore drilling. Speaking this hour in the Rose Garden, he said Americans are looking to Washington for relief from gas prices. With gasoline at $4 a gallon and higher, pressure has been growing for more domestic oil and gas production.
In Houston yesterday, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain also called for lifting the federal moratorium on offshore drilling. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: John McCain says the U.S. has mortgaged its economy and its national security to foreign oil producers, many of whom don't have Americans' best interests at heart. In the long run, he says, the country needs to seek out alternatives to oil, including wind, solar and nuclear power. But he says Americans struggling to pay for $4 a gallon gasoline can't afford to wait for those far-off plans of futurists and politicians.
His short-term fix: more drilling now off the coast of Florida, California and elsewhere.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We have proven oil reserves of at least 21 billion barrels in the United States. But a broad federal moratorium stands in the way of energy, exploration and production. And I believe it is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions and put our own reserves to use.
(Soundbite of applause)
HORSLEY: That was a message tailor-made for this crowd in Houston, who responded with a standing ovation. Petroleum geologist Clint Moore was in the front row. He says opening the door to offshore drilling is long overdue.
Mr. CLINT MOORE (Petroleum Geologist): We wouldn't be having the problems that we have today in terms of supply if we had opened up a lot of the areas that have been in a moratorium. Not just the offshore areas of the East Coast and the Florida coast and the West Coast; we also need to be looking at the Alaska areas as well.
HORSLEY: McCain's Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, opposes offshore drilling. But President Bush promises a renewed push for drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. McCain previously opposed drilling in both areas. He hasn't changed his mind yet about Alaska.
Sen. MCCAIN: When America set aside the National Wildlife Refuge, we called it a refuge for a reason.
HORSLEY: But McCain says the U.S. has the know-how and technology to drill for oil offshore without damaging the environment. Independent energy analyst Philip Verleger agrees, but says even if the moratorium were lifted, it would take years for new offshore rigs to produce any oil.
Mr. PHILIP VERLEGER (Independent Energy Analyst): It will not be in the term of the next president that we will see much significant increase in production even if we were to change the moratorium, say, on January 20, 2009.
HORSLEY: Verleger and other energy economists say the best way to address high gas prices is through conservation and improved efficiency.
Mr. VERLEGER: We're only going to get out of this problem by using less.
HORSLEY: McCain did give a nod to that idea in his speech yesterday, and in doing so he distanced himself from Vice President Dick Cheney, who famously dismissed conservation in 2001 as merely a personal virtue, not a solution to the nation's energy needs.
Sen. MCCAIN: In the face of climate change and the other serious challenges, energy conservation is no longer just a moral luxury or a personal virtue. Conservation serves a critical national goal.
HORSLEY: High gas prices are already forcing drivers to conserve, albeit involuntarily. McCain renewed his call for a temporary lifting of the federal gas tax, even though economists say that would just encourage people to drive more. Although McCain said earlier this year he'd be willing to consider a tax on oil companies' outsized profits, yesterday he criticized Obama for backing a windfall profits tax.
While some of the run-up in oil prices can be explained by the fundamentals of supply and demand, McCain says financial speculators are also partly to blame.
Sen. MCCAIN: And while a few reckless speculators are counting their paper profits, most Americans are coming up on the short end, using more and more of their hard-earned paychecks to buy gas for the truck, tractor or family car.
HORSLEY: McCain called for stepped up regulation to make energy markets more transparent and prevent manipulation. Some critics say it was McCain's economic mentor, former Texas Senator Phil Graham, who helped make the energy markets less transparent with legislation earlier this decade.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Houston.
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