WASHINGTON -- Amid signs that Democratic opposition is weakening, President Bush on Tuesday stepped up pressure on Congress to lift its ban on offshore drilling, saying the damage caused by Hurricane Gustav makes it clear that the nation needs to increase its domestic oil supply.
"One thing is for certain: When Congress comes back, they've got to understand that we need more domestic energy, not less ... and one place to find it is offshore America, lands that have been taken off the books, so to speak, by congressional law," Bush said at a White House briefing.
With the ban set to expire Sept. 30, the issue is sure to dominate debate when Congress ends its month-long summer break next week. And as Republicans gear up for a no-holds-barred battle to prevent the Democratic-led Congress from renewing the ban, they're ecstatic that even Californians are wavering in their decades-old opposition to coastal drilling.
After calling the president's plan a hoax and vowing to block a vote earlier this summer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco reversed course last month, saying she's ready to allow one. Last week, county supervisors in Santa Barbara -- site of a famous 1969 oil spill -- voted 3-2 to end their opposition to drilling. And perhaps most surprisingly, the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll recently showing that for the first time, a majority -- 51 percent -- of the state's residents now back drilling; that's a 10 percent increase in one year.
Opponents of the ban still face an uphill struggle, however. In the Senate, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Republicans have "demagogued the issue in both houses of Congress" as they try to sell "snake oil" to the public. In an attempt to break the deadlock, a bipartisan group of senators is promoting a plan to partially end the ban by allowing drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the southeastern U.S. coast. That proposal would keep the California ban intact.
Bush made his remarks as he met with members of his Cabinet to discuss the damage caused by Hurricane Gustav.
Bush noted that the Gulf Coast region produces much energy for the nation but said "it's a little too early to be making any forecasts" regarding the damage caused to oil rigs by the deadly hurricane. He said that members of Congress "need to give us a chance to find more oil and gas" to increase the domestic supply.
"I'd much rather American consumers be buying gasoline produced from American oil than from foreign oil," Bush said. "I'd rather our dollar stay at home than go overseas. And I know the Congress has been on recess for a while, but this issue hasn't gone away. And this storm should not cause the members of Congress to say, well, we don't need to address our energy independence; it ought to cause the Congress to step up their need to address our dependence on foreign oil. And one place to do so is to give us a chance to explore in environmentally friendly ways on the Outer Continental Shelf."
Pelosi has been under attack all summer, with House Republicans blaming her opposition to drilling for rising gasoline prices. Last month, she appeared to bow to the pressure by saying she'd allow a vote on drilling if the proposal was included in a broader energy bill. That's a stance similar to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee.
Responding to Bush's remarks, Pelosi said: "For too long the president's and Republicans' `drill only' energy policies have reflected the demands of Big Oil."
She said House Democrats are crafting "a comprehensive energy strategy" that will spend more on renewable energy sources while "opening portions of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling, with appropriate safeguards, and without taxpayer subsidies to Big Oil."
Republicans quickly seized on the vote by the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors, noting that public opinion had changed in a part of the country long recognized for its environmental sensitivity.
"Santa Barbarans get it, and if they get it, this country gets it," said California Republican Rep. George Radanovich, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He called Santa Barbara a place "where oil oozes out of the ground under the pressure" and said it has served as "the epicenter of the offshore oil drilling conflict over the last 40 years."
The poll found most Californians rethinking energy issues. Nearly 70 percent said they've cut back significantly on driving because of higher gasoline prices. Nearly three out of four said they'll seriously consider a more fuel-efficient car the next time they buy a vehicle. And 77 percent of Republicans said they want to end the ban on coastal drilling, compared to 35 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Independents.
But Republican Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio said the debate is broader than any particular state, arguing that the nation's coastlines belong to all Americans.
"They don't belong to those who live in California, or Florida, or North Carolina," he said. "It's our land. It's our resource."