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Updated: U.S. public’s thirst for oil prodding Congress to act

With Bush urging new oil exploration in coastal waters, top lawmakers respond with calls to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 15, 2008

The BP Thunder Horse platform, about 150 miles southeast of New Orleans.

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/Rapport Press/NEWSCOM

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Washington

Public anger over high gasoline prices is fueling new activity along bipartisan lines on Capitol Hill, especially over the need to lift a longstanding moratorium on new offshore oil drilling.

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For weeks, a nearly united Republican caucus has been riding a crest in public opinion in favor of more exploration and drilling. Their slogan: Find more. Use less.

Acutely aware of the shift in public sentiment, Democrats are moving beyond their standard talking points about Big Oil – its billions in profits, its oilmen in the White House. They are now also posing this question: Why aren’t oil companies pumping from the 68 million acres of unused oil leases they already control? Their slogan: Use it or lose it.

The issue came to a sharp partisan point this week, as President Bush lifted an executive ban on offshore exploration on the outer continental shelf – and challenged Congress to lift its own ban.

“The only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the USCongress,” he said Tuesday.

Top Democrats threw down their own gauntlets: “For eight years, he’s done nothing,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid said after the president’s news conference. “Rather than open offshore areas for drilling, Bush should tell oil companies to drill in the 6.8 million acres they already have [leased].”

On the House side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Mr. Bush to begin releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to bring down prices at the pump quickly. “Whether the president knows it or not, there is an emergency in our country,” she said at a news conference with energy experts on Tuesday.

But increasingly, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that their constituents will not accept partisan gridlock on this issue – and informal groups in the House and Senate are working to try to reach a consensus before Congress breaks for August recess.

Democrats are especially troubled by recent surveys signaling that the strains of higher gas prices are driving up Americans’ support for greater energy exploration, even at the expense of the environment. Almost three-quarters of American adults now strongly or mildly favor increased drilling for oil and natural gas in offshore waters, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted June 26-29.

“All members, regardless of which states they come from, recognize that we face an energy crisis of enormous concern to their constituents,” says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who is meeting with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut and other moderates to help frame bipartisan legislation on the issue.

On the House side, Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii and John Peterson (R) of Pennsylvania launched a bipartisan House Energy Group on Monday.

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