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On U.S. coasts, a rethink on oil drilling?

High gas prices may soften the opposition of some states to offshore drilling.

By Staff writer and Correspondent, Amy GreenStaff writer and Correspondent / June 20, 2008

SOURCE: US Minerals Management Service/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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Oakland, Calif.; and orlando, fla.

When Sen. John McCain visits Santa Barbara, Calif., next week, Charles Eckberg will be there to protest the Republican presidential candidate's calls to lift the federal ban on US offshore drilling.

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Mr. Eckberg, a grass-roots activist, remembers the 1969 spill off the coast of Santa Barbara that galvanized the state and the nation to halt fresh drilling. The ocean was so laden with oil that the waves crashed ashore silently, he says.

Now, Eckberg is concerned that "people are going to say, 'Let's do this because of the gas prices.' "

Voter frustration with dependence on foreign oil and $4-a-gallon gas have primed political pumps for more domestic drilling. Despite the national support for drilling, the politically blue coasts hold a virtual veto in Congress. But experts say all the attention on the issue could push some of the more conservative coastal states to lift their own moratoriums.

"There's a good chance we'll see some of the moratoriums lifted in the next few years," says Eric Smith, an environmental politics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "Because of [Bush and McCain's] leadership, offshore oil drilling has appeared as a major environmental issue, and we'll be debating it for a while."

State moratoriums cover the first few miles off the shores, and federal moratoriums extend those to 200 miles out. Offshore drilling is allowed in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and some grandfathered pockets off California.

President Bush echoed Senator McCain Wednesday, urging Congress to lift the federal moratorium.

California is unlikely to budge on its ban, but more conservative Southern states including Florida might, says Dr. Smith. Californians, by a 52-to-41 margin, oppose drilling off their coast, according to a July 2007 Public Policy Institute of California poll taken before gas prices started increasing.

Republican governors of the two states have taken opposite tacks: California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes lifting the moratoriums, while Florida's Gov. Charlie Crist now supports it.

Governor Crist's position is a stark reversal for the governor, who is seen as a possible vice presidential pick. The decision puts him at odds with Floridians who derive the bulk of their livelihoods from the beaches.

"This would break ranks with all previous governors as long as I can remember," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon Florida. "He is squandering his green credentials on this issue."

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