Bush lifts offshore drilling ban, but impact is muted

President Bush lifted his restrictions on offshore oil drilling Monday, but don't expect to see rigs sprouting off Cape Hatteras anytime soon.

Congress still has a ban in place – and it's uncertain at best whether the Democratic leadership would be willing to go along with Bush's plans for oil production.

At issue for North Carolina are 300 miles of some of the nation's most undeveloped coastline. Waters off the state's coast contain significant fishing and birding habitats, while the coastal tourism economy is among the state's most important.

But North Carolinians are paying more than $4 a gallon for gasoline, and most tell pollsters they support offshore drilling.

The U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that 19 billion barrels could be found in parts of the coast currently off-limits to drilling. If all 19 billion barrels were available, which is unlikely, the United States would have another 920 days, or 2.5 years, of supplies at current consumption rates.

“The only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress,” Bush said. “Today, I've taken every step within my power to allow offshore exploration” of the Outer Continental Shelf.

Such drilling would have almost no effect on current gas prices, though. Experts say it would take at least eight years to produce oil offshore once bans are lifted.

Bush's action is the latest salvo in an election year that has seen Democrats and Republicans diverge sharply in recent weeks on offshore drilling.

Splintering consensus

Historically, the offshore drilling ban has been popular on both sides of the aisle. Bush's father put the first executive ban in place in 1990. A congressional moratorium, first passed in 1981, remains until 2012.

The prohibitions had long seemed solid because of opposition from Democrats, environmental groups and coastal politicians – all of whom have said the environmental risks weren't worth the oil.

With gas prices at record levels and polls showing most Americans favor looking for oil along the coastline, there could be increasing political pressure for Congress to act.

Among the politicians who have changed their minds in recent weeks about drilling offshore are Dole, who faces re-election this year, and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mel Martinez of Florida, all Republicans.

Not expecting much

Those interested in the issue in North Carolina say they doubt much will change this year.

Jake Parker, lobbyist for the N.C. Farm Bureau, said Bush's action is just another hurdle to clear to help farmers struggling with high diesel and fertilizer prices.

“The president lifting this is going to provide a little more incentive to Congress to talk about it and hopefully do something,” Parker said. “Given the political environment in the election year, I'm not sure they're going to do that. But it's a step in the right direction.”

Congress has just a few weeks before its members head home for August recess, giving little time for action.

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