WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday proposed to allow drilling off U.S. coastlines 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 oil and gas exploration, experts agree that it would take at least seven years - and probably 10 years - before any benefits were apparent.
"Our nation must produce more oil, and we must start now," Mr. Bush said.
Congressional Democrats' opposition to such a plan is "outdated and counterproductive," the President said, and it "helped drive gas prices to their current level."
Saying that $4-a-gallon gas prices should be "enough incentive" for Democrats to act, Mr. Bush asked, "How high do gas prices have to rise before the Democratic Congress will do something about it?"
Mr. 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.
The President made no men-tion of his father, President George H.W. Bush, who banned coastal oil exploration in 1990, or his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who opposed it.
Mr. Bush made his proposal one day after Republican presidential candidate John McCain called for lifting the ban on offshore drilling.
Barack Obama, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee, rejected lifting the drilling moratorium.
"This is not something that's going to give consumers short-term relief and it is not a long-term solution to our problems with fossil fuels generally and oil in particular," Mr. Obama said.
Most Democrats were immediately skeptical.
"To hear George Bush and John McCain say it, you'd think gasoline is going to run straight out of the ground and right into your car," Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said. "This is not a relief plan for American families; it's a relief plan for oil companies."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) faulted the White House for taking so long. In a letter headlined, "Welcome to the off-shore energy fight, Mr. President ... we've been waiting for you," she said Mr. Bush should have taken the position seven years ago.
"When we urged lifting the nation's ban on such production while there was a real possibility to act, this administration's courage could not be found," she wrote.
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.
The drilling ban is the product of action by Congress and the White House.
The President'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 has 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 yesterday 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.
Mr. Bush himself has been a reluctant warrior. He 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 he found steep resistance from Florida lawmakers, who fear that environmental damage to beaches would hurt tourism and the state's economy.
Mr. McCain made support for lifting the ban the centerpiece of a major energy speech Tuesday.