WASHINGTON — Barack Obama Friday dropped his opposition to offshore oil drilling, saying he could go along with the idea if it was part of a broader energy package.
Obama made his comments in St. Petersburg during an interview with the Palm Beach Post. "My interest is in making sure we've got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices," he said.
"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," the paper quoted Obama as saying.
The change is dramatic because Obama often pointed to his opposition to drilling as a key difference between himself and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
"I will keep the moratorium in place and prevent oil companies from drilling off Florida’s coasts," Obama said in Florida in June.
Friday, he said he was still not a fan of drilling, telling the Palm Beach paper, "I think it's important for the American people to understand we're not going to drill our way out of this problem."
Obama also said, in a separate statement issued by his campaign, that he supported the bipartisan energy plan offered by 10 senators Friday.
"Like all compromises, it also includes steps that I haven't always supported," he said. "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."
The proposal would end most of the ban on drilling. It would allow a 50-mile buffer on the east coast, as well as Florida's west coast. Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina would be permitted to start oil and natural gas exploration outside the buffer.
Any oil, the senators said, would have to stay in this country.
McCain reacted quickly to Obama's switch in positions, telling the Associated Press, "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."
Experts estimate that even if drilling proves to sharply increase oil supplies, its effects will not be felt for at least seven and probably 10 years.
But the concept has proven popular, and McCain has made it a centerpiece of his stump speeches and some of his television ads.
Political momentum has been moving in favor of opening up U.S. coastlines. There were two bars to offshore drilling, one first imposed by Congress in 1981 and another signed by President Bush's father in 1990 and renewed in 1998 by President Clinton. Bush lifted the executive ban last month; Congress, which left Friday for a five-week recess, has not acted.
The government bans exploration and drilling on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, to protect U.S. beaches and fisheries from pollution.