WASHINGTON — President Bush proposed Wednesday to allow drilling off U.S. coastlines as part of a plan to boost oil supplies, but his plan is likely to go nowhere because of a reluctant Democratic-majority Congress, which fears environmental costs.
Even if U.S. coastal waters were opened to exploration, experts agree that it would take at least seven and probably 10 years before any benefits were apparent.
Bush talked tough, saying "our nation must produce more oil, and we must start now." He said that expanding drilling offshore could produce enough oil to "match America's current oil production for 10 years."
Annual American oil production is about 1.8 billion barrels, and the Interior Department estimates that as much as 19 billion barrels remain untapped in coastal areas currently off limits to drillers.
Bush could have taken a bolder step by overturning a 10-year-old executive order that bans drilling off most U.S. shores. But he said he wouldn't do that because he wanted Congress to act first.
Time after time in recent years, drilling advocates have been unable to get the votes in Congress. When Republicans controlled Congress in 2006, the House of Representatives agreed to overturn the ban on offshore drilling, but the measure died in the Senate.
Last week, Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., tried to get a House Appropriations subcommittee to overturn the ban and lost 9-6 on a party-line vote.
"We are kidding ourselves if we think we can drill ourselves out of these problems," House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said at that time.
On Wednesday, Democrats pounced on the Bush-McCain push for offshore drilling.
"Republicans want to lavish Big Oil with subsidies in a time of record-breaking profits," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
The drilling ban is the product of action by Congress and the White House.
Bush's father, under political pressure to show his environmental credentials, issued an executive order in 1990 that barred most offshore drilling. President Clinton renewed it in 1998 and extended it until 2012.
Congress also has a say. Since 1981, it's included provisions in spending bills that prohibit federal money from being spent on most offshore drilling. Each year since, Congress has renewed that ban, and is expected to do so again this year.
By calling Wednesday for drilling — as well as urging Congress to approve oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, recovering more oil from oil shale and increasing refining capacity — the president is asking for a rematch of a fight that drilling proponents have lost consistently.
Bush himself has been a reluctant warrior. The president said in 2001 that no new drilling would occur off the Florida coast "under my watch." He backed off that position four years later, as House Republicans pushed to end the drilling ban, but found steep resistance from Florida lawmakers, who fear that environmental damage to beaches would hurt tourism and the state's economy.
The president's position has picked up some support in recent days, notably from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
The Arizona senator made support for lifting the ban the centerpiece of a major energy speech Tuesday in Houston, saying "we have enormous energy reserves of our own, and we are gaining the means to use these resources in cleaner, more responsible ways."
The Bush plan is likely to face trouble for several reasons.
He touted his ideas as an antidote to high prices and dependence on foreign oil, saying that by following them, "we will take pressure off gas prices over time by expanding the amount of American-made oil and gasoline."
However, analysts on all sides agree that drilling faces political, regulatory and economic hurdles. Individual states could forbid it. If exploration were allowed, permits would have to be granted, and before that environmental concerns must be addressed. Drilling also would have to make economic sense: Offshore drilling is expensive, and the more remote the site, the more costly it is.
There's no consensus on how much untapped oil exists.
In a 2006 report, the Interior Department offered a wide range of estimates as to how much oil could be recovered offshore. While it estimated that the Outer Continental Shelf could hold as much as 115.4 billion barrels, it also noted that recoverable reserves off U.S. coasts in now-banned areas probably contain only about 19 billion barrels.
The U.S. consumes about 20.6 million barrels a day, about 60 percent from foreign sources.
If 19 billion barrels are available in as-yet-untapped U.S. coastal areas, opening them all to drilling — an unlikely prospect if individual states are allowed to impose their own restrictions, as Bush and McCain recommend — would provide about 920 days, or 2.5 years, of current American consumption.
Some pro-energy industry analysts thought that the president didn't go far enough Wednesday.
"The president has chosen to speak softly when American consumers need him to wield a big stick," said Thomas J. Pyle, the president of the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit, pro-market research center. "He has the authority to tear up the executive moratorium immediately ... this was a missed opportunity."