Fearing environmental damage to the state's coastline, California's top leaders made it clear Monday that they want nothing to do with President Bush's plan to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling.
Bush said his approach would reduce pressure on record gasoline prices, and he urged Congress to follow his lead.
"Failure to act is unacceptable," Bush said.
But as soon as the president made the announcement in a Rose Garden ceremony, California's Democratic leaders accused Bush of cozying up to oil interests. They said his plan would do nothing to lower gasoline prices.
"Once again, the oilman in the White House is echoing the demands of Big Oil," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. "The Bush plan is a hoax. It will neither reduce gas prices nor increase energy independence. It just gives millions more acres to the same companies that are sitting on nearly 68 million acres of public lands and coastal areas."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, who heads the Senate's environmental committee, said Bush was "taking special-interest government to a new level" and threatening California's coastal economy, which she said is worth $12 billion and produces almost 270,000 jobs.
"President Bush is giving another gift to the oil companies that will do not one thing to lower gas prices for the American people," Boxer said. "This proposal is something you'd expect from an oil company CEO, not the president of the United States."
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said the president was "deluding the American public" into believing that new offshore drilling is a quick fix to $4-per-gallon gasoline.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," she said. "We cannot drill our way out of this problem."
Even California's Republican governor joined the chorus, saying the state should focus on alternative energies as the best way to reduce fuel costs.
"I know people are frustrated with the soaring price of gas, and I welcome the national debate on solutions to lower our energy costs, but in California we know offshore drilling is not the answer," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Bush called it "a difficult period for millions of American families," adding that "every extra dollar they have to spend because of high gas prices is one dollar less they can use to put food on the table or send a child to school."
Americans, he said, "are rightly angered by Congress' failure to enact common-sense solutions."
While the president's plan is unlikely to have any immediate impact on prices or supply, it could be an important prod to a reluctant Congress, which has refused to lift the 27-year-old prohibition against drilling. There are two prohibitions to drilling, one imposed by Congress in 1981 and another signed by Bush's father in 1990 and renewed in 1998 by President Clinton.
Bush said last month that he wanted to end the drilling ban, but wanted Congress to go first.
"It's been almost a month since I urged Congress to act – and they've done nothing," Bush said. "They've not moved any legislation. And as the Democratically controlled Congress has sat idle, gas prices have continued to increase."
Now, the president said, "the ball is squarely in Congress' court."
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, called the plan "another Bush administration gift to a much-favored special interest" and said Congress should reject it.
But Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said the only thing standing in the way of oil and gas exploration that will lower gasoline prices is Pelosi and her colleagues in the Democratic leadership.
Experts agree that it would take at least seven and probably 10 years before any benefits from overturning the ban would become evident.
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 that now are off limits to drillers.
If all 19 billion barrels were available, which is highly unlikely, the United States would have another 920 days, or 2.5 years, of supplies at current consumption rates.
With energy prices soaring, Congress has been debating energy for weeks, and sentiment is slowly beginning to turn toward drilling as political pressure has increased on legislators and elections come into view.
Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, called Bush's plan "a good one" and said exploring energy reserves off U.S. coasts "can make a difference" if it's done in an environmentally sensitive way.
"Americans are feeling the weight of high gas prices and Congress must do something to alleviate this pressure," Lungren said. "There is no one-size-fits-all answer to solve this problem."
Pelosi reiterated her call to the president to release some of the oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way to reduce record gasoline prices.
"The American people know that with two oilmen in the White House for the past seven years, they now have $4-a-gallon gas," she said. She said Bush has "refused to take responsibility for his disastrous economic and energy policies that have pushed our country to the brink of recession" and that his "drill-only approach" is wrongheaded.
Pelosi said House Democrats want to force oil companies to drill on the 68 million acres of public lands and coastal areas that have already been designated for that use. She said she'll promote "use it or lose it" legislation that would turn over the leases to other companies if the oil companies don't want to make use of the land.
Boxer said the president's latest plan would result in less pressure on oil companies to produce on the leases they already hold.
"At a time when the Bush administration is failing on housing, the economy, the deficit, the environment and foreign policy, the president is desperately trying to divert responsibility for outrageous gas prices from himself to the Congress," Boxer said.
Feinstein said the plan would expose fragile marine species and coastal businesses to the threat of a catastrophic oil spill. She also noted that there's already a five-year waiting list for existing drilling rigs and that the vast majority of new rigs now in production are committed through 2012. So even if new waters are opened to drilling, she said, there would be no equipment available.