WASHINGTON President Bush on Saturday tried to pin the blame on Congress for soaring energy prices and said lawmakers need to lift long-standing restrictions on drilling for oil in pristine lands and offshore tracts believed to hold huge reserves of fuel.
"It's time for members of Congress to address the pain that high gas prices are causing our citizens," the president said. "Every extra dollar that American families spend because of high gas prices is one less dollar they can use to put food on the table or send a child to college. The American people deserve better."
With gasoline prices above $4 a gallon, Bush and his Republican allies think Americans are more willing to allow drilling offshore and in an Alaska wildlife refuge that environmentalists have fought successfully for decades to protect.
Nearly half the people surveyed by the Pew Research Center in late June said they now consider energy exploration and drilling more important than conservation, compared with a little over a third who felt that way only five months ago. The sharpest shift in attitude came among political liberals.
Democrats say they are for drilling but argue that oil companies aren't going after the oil where they already have leases. So why open new, protected areas? they ask. Democrats say there are 68 million acres of federal land and waters where oil and gas companies hold leases but aren't producing oil.
"Americans are fed up every time they go to fill up and they're right to demand action. But instead of a serious response, President Bush and his allies simply repeat the same old line: more drilling," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in the Democrats' radio address.
"Democrats support more drilling," he said. "In fact, what the president hasn't told you is that the oil companies are already sitting on 68 million acres of federal lands with the potential to nearly double U.S. oil production. That is why in the coming days congressional Democrats will vote on 'Use It or Lose It' legislation requiring the big oil companies to develop these resources or lose their leases to someone else who will."
"But we know that drilling by itself will not solve the problem of high gas prices," Van Hollen said. "We cannot drill our way to energy independence."
He cited Democrats' calls to tap the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, because it is full and "America's rainy day is now." And he said the country must focus on new energy policies that focus on alternatives to oil.
Bush said that Democrats are at fault and that "Americans are increasingly frustrated with Congress' failure to take action.
"One of the factors driving up high gas prices is that many of our oil deposits here in the United States have been put off-limits for exploration and production. Past efforts to meet the demand for oil by expanding domestic resources have been repeatedly rejected by Democrats in Congress."
Bush repeated his call for Congress to lift the restrictions, including a ban on offshore drilling. A succession of presidents from George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton to the current president have sided against drilling in these waters as has Congress each year for 27 years, seeking to protect beaches and coastal states' tourism economies.