WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain plans to call Tuesday for lifting the ban that prevents offshore oil and gas drilling along much of the U.S. coastline — but would give states like Florida veto power over opening up their shores.
McCain, who plans to unveil his proposal in detail Tuesday, said Monday that lifting the decades-old moratorium should be a "very high priority'' with gasoline prices soaring. He said that allowing states to explore for gas and oil "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.''
House Republicans are waging an increasingly aggressive push to lift both a congressional and a presidential ban that prevent exploration of the coastline. An effort to lift the ban was defeated along partisan lines last Wednesday in a House subcommittee meeting, but its sponsor plans to try again this week.
Democrats assailed McCain's proposal. Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Barack Obama, said McCain's "plan to simply drill our way out of our energy crisis is the same misguided approach backed by President Bush that has failed our families for too long and only serves to benefit the big oil companies.''
Florida lawmakers have long opposed any efforts to open the coastline to drilling and Sen. Bill Nelson said "any approach to weaken the moratorium on coastal oil drilling is irresponsible."
"There isn't enough oil in the U.S. to make even the smallest dent in world oil prices, which largely are being run-up by unregulated traders and speculators, including the oil companies,'' the Democratic senator said.
Ken Lundberg, a spokesman for Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican who has worked with Nelson to fend off efforts to explore the coast, said Martinez was "very sympathetic to the desire to increase domestic production" and was interested in seeing the details of McCain's plan.
Congress has approved bans on offshore oil and gas leasing since the 1980s, allowing exploration only in the far western Gulf of Mexico and some parts of Alaska.
There's also a presidential ban on exploration or drilling, which lasts until 2012.
Facing similar pressure to open up more coastline to exploration, Florida's congressional delegation in December 2006 reached a compromise to give up eight million acres in the Gulf of Mexico in exchange for the state getting at least a 125-mile buffer zone from drilling.
House Republicans have pushed an effort to allow for drilling within 50 miles of the coastline; McCain said Monday that the distance should be the "subject of negotiation and discussion."
"I'm not dictating to the states that they drill or they engage in oil exploration," he said at a press conference at his campaign headquarters in Alexandria, Va. "I am saying that the moratoria should be lifted so that they have the opportunity to do so."
McCain came under fire in Florida recently for opposing a national catastrophe insurance pool and voting against a bill that included money for restoring the Everglades, and his campaign stressed Tuesday to reporters that his push to open the coastline would allow states to make the call.
But he did not offer details on whether it would be up to state governors or legislatures. And it remains uncertain whether state officials would remain united in opposition to drilling, given the pressure.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who has endorsed McCain, sidestepped the issue last week when asked whether he would support oil drilling off Florida's coast.
"Number one, I don't like it," he said, "But nor do I like the price of gas and I don't think the people of Florida are enjoying it either."
McCain has angered his fellow Republicans for opposing drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He repeated his opposition Monday.
"I believe that ANWR is a pristine area," he said. "Obviously, I've felt that way ever since we put it in to permanent preservation status. I do believe that there are places in the world, as I said, that we should not drill. But I certainly think that there are areas off our coasts that should be open to exploration and exploitation. And I hope we can take the first step by lifting the moratoria in order to do so."