June 17, 2008

McCain Eyes New Oil Drilling

By David Jackson

WASHINGTON -- John McCain called Monday for lifting a federal moratorium on offshore drilling for oil and gas -- a politically sensitive issue in such key states as Florida.

States should decide for themselves whether to permit drilling, McCain said, but they should be given the option to combat what he called an "energy crisis" that saw gas prices reach an average of $4.08 a gallon on Monday.

McCain's plan represents a shift for the presumptive Republican nominee, who supported the offshore drilling ban during his 2000 presidential campaign. Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the Arizona senator, said McCain understands that voters want action to meet new problems.

McCain previewed a speech he'll give today in Houston. He told reporters at a campaign office outside of Washington that he continues to oppose drilling in some areas, including the Alaskan wilderness. "But I certainly think that there are areas off our coasts that should be open to exploration and exploitation," he added.

The senator has also endorsed efforts by congressional Republicans to expand oil and gas drilling in the face of rapidly rising fuel prices. Florida's Republican and Democratic lawmakers -- led by Gov. Charlie Crist, a prominent McCain supporter -- have pushed back on those efforts.

Democrat Barack Obama's campaign and environmental groups said McCain's proposal threatens U.S. coastlines and does little to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan said McCain's hope to "simply drill our way out of our energy crisis" mimics the approach of the Bush administration.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, legislative director with the League of Conservation Voters, said McCain should stress alternative fuel sources. "We need to be focused more on increased energy efficiency and on renewable energy sources like wind and solar power."

McCain does support development of alternative energy sources, which he'll outline in depth today and in upcoming energy speeches. "I'll be talking about our dependency on foreign oil, how we can reduce and eventually eliminate it," he said.

Congress imposed a moratorium on new offshore oil and gas drilling in 1981.

McCain's pitch to lift the drilling restrictions could put him in conflict with Crist, whose endorsement days before Florida's primary on Jan. 29 helped the Arizona senator pull off a key primary victory. The state, a perennial presidential battleground, has 27 electoral votes at stake in November. Crist did not return calls for comment.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., denounced McCain's idea. "Oil companies already have leases on some 91 million other acres of government land where they haven't even started drilling yet," Nelson said.

McCain said he still opposes drilling in certain "pristine" areas such as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge --a position that puts him at odds with President Bush, who has tried repeatedly to open the refuge to drilling.

Last week, a House panel defeated a Republican plan to lift the ban beyond 50 miles of coastline.

McCain did not say where offshore drilling should begin and end, saying such restrictions would be "a subject of negotiation and discussion."

"I don't want to dictate to the states what they should do," McCain said. "But I think that the states can be provided with additional incentives" such as a larger share of oil royalties. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>