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

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

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.

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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.

“It is abundantly clear that the public is tired of the partisan rhetoric coming out of Washington. They want solutions,” the two lawmakers said in a joint statement. The group is proposing a comprehensive approach, including regulatory reform, investment in alternative energy technologies, conservation, and increased domestic production.

On the Senate side, another new bipartisan working group on energy – the Gang of 10 – aims to build on the success of an earlier group, the so-called Gang of 14, which broke a previous Senate gridlock over judicial nominations.

The group, organized by Sens. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota and Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, is looking to forge a consensus about which restricted areas could win a majority of Senate votes for lifting a ban on exploration, focusing especially on easing restrictions in the Gulf of Mexico.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, count 10 Democrats willing to consider opening restricted areas to more exploration.

“As of today, 10 Democrats have expressed some level of willingness to explore offshore. They’re acknowledging a groundswell of public opinion – even among self-described liberals – in favor of more domestic supply,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a statement on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“We need to put partisanship aside and come up with an agenda that can get sufficient support to pass,” says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, a member of both the energy working group and the Gang of 14. There’s bipartisan support to lift a drilling ban “under appropriate circumstances,” he says.

The Senate Energy Committee is inviting all 100 senators to a Thursday workshop on transportation and heating-fuel costs.

“I intend for the workshop to focus our attention not only on the challenges inherent in high oil prices, but also on developing a common path forward that we can come together to support,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who chairs the panel.

In a floor speech Wednesday, he set out priorities for moving toward a consensus: First, deal with speculation in the oil futures market. Second, encourage a reduction in US demand. “And then we should also look at supply,” he said.

“There are a lot of areas outside the moratoria that could be leased under current law…. If the administration knows a particular area that they believe has great promise and would like to ... open to leasing that currently are not covered, I would be anxious to have them present the evidence and tell us what those are,” he said.

Before taking up the issue of increased domestic production, Senate Democrats plan to move legislation to rein in speculation in oil markets, which they assert has added 30 percent to the price of a barrel of oil. Republicans hope to offer amendments to end the ban on offshore exploration and drilling to that bill.

“Let me suggest to you that a bill that simply ratifies the status quo is not going to fool the American people nor be adequate for the Republican conference,” said the GOP’s Senator McConnell. A minimum “threshold of credibility” must include “opening up the outer continental shelf where states want to have it open, getting rid of the oil shale moratorium, incentivizing battery-driven cars, and an adequate study of the futures market to make sure that it’s functioning properly,” he said.

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