By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
June 23, 2008
In an election year when Republicans are bracing to lose seats in Congress and major issues from Iraq to the economy appear to favor the Democrats, the GOP is betting that an aggressive push to drill for new domestic energy will be their ticket to success in November.
"Energy is actually a huge opportunity for Republicans," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who chairs the Senate Republicans' re-election campaign. "Energy has the opportunity to change the climate if it's done right."
A recent Gallup Poll found that 57 percent of Americans would support drilling in offshore or wilderness areas that are currently off-limits to drilling, while 41 percent oppose the idea. Frank Newport, the poll's editor in chief, contends that Republicans' push for more drilling is now "generally in sync with majority American public opinion."
Saudi Arabia's hazy promise Sunday to increase oil production by a couple hundred thousand barrels to 9.7 million barrels a day may have little impact on pump prices, especially with demand continuing to rise in China and India.
House and Senate Republicans are leading an almost daily drive for legislation to lift the federal moratorium on offshore drilling, increase oil shale development in the Rocky Mountain West and open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.
"Between now and election day, you're going to see Republicans on Capitol Hill pushing Democrats to have votes in the House and Senate on having more American-made energy," House Republican Leader John Boehner, of Ohio, said last week. "Let's let the American people see who's for more American-made energy and who isn't."
Bush made the same point in endorsing a plan to lift the ban on offshore drilling. "Americans will rightly ask how high oil, how high gas prices have to rise before the Democratically controlled Congress will do something about it," Bush said.
House and Senate Democratic leaders are unlikely ever to let these drilling proposals reach the floor. Rather than play defense on the issue, Democrats are staging repeated votes on their energy priorities -- renewing tax credits for wind and solar power, revoking tax subsidies for the oil industry and targeting speculators in energy markets.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is pushing back by pointing out that oil companies already have leased 68 million acres on and offshore, capable of producing 4.8 million barrels of oil a day, which have not yet been developed. She plans a vote on a bill to bar oil firms from bidding on new leases until they start tapping the acres they already hold.
"Why should we be giving big oil additional leases to drill when they have 68 million acres under lease already that they're not drilling on right now?" Pelosi said.
House Democrats also plan votes on closing the "Enron loophole," which exempted electronic trading in energy markets from federal regulation, and on a measure to reduce mass transit fares to help commuters who, in response to high gas prices, are leaving their cars at home.
But soaring fuel prices have also led some longtime drilling opponents to change their views. Crist, the Florida Republican governor who had led opposition to coastal drilling, said he would support McCain's push to lift the federal moratorium. "We have to be sympathetic to the pocketbooks of the people of Florida and what they're paying at the pump for gas," Crist said.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who's mentioned as a possible running mate for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, broke from the party line to endorse a measure by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., to allow drilling for natural gas -- but not oil -- at least 50 miles off the coast of Virginia.
"We can't simply step away and not address solutions with respect to different energy alternatives," Webb said.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted last year that if the moratorium were lifted, it would take until 2012 to start leasing the areas and until 2017 before oil began to flow. The agency estimated that U.S. oil production would increase by 7 percent -- about 200,000 barrels a day -- by 2030, which it said would have an "insignificant" impact on oil prices.
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