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Los Angeles Times - John McCain Open to Drilling Offshore, not in Arctic Refuge

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Location: Washington, DC

Los Angeles Times - John McCain Open to Drilling Offshore, not in Arctic Refuge

Sen. John McCain's call today to lift a 27-year federal moratorium on new oil and gas drilling along the nation's coastline angered many in the environmental community and put him at odds with several key Republican governors.

Warning that America has become dangerously dependent on foreign oil, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee reversed his own long-held position in favor of the ban. He instead urged that coastal states be given the option to allow drilling to "assure affordable fuel" for Americans hard-hit by soaring gas prices.

"I believe it is time for federal government to lift these restrictions and put our own reserves to use," the Arizona senator said in a speech on energy security in Houston.

The Bush administration and some Republicans in Congress have unsuccessfully sought to skirt the ban by giving states greater authority to allow off-shore exploration and drilling. When McCain ran for president in 2000, he opposed easing those restrictions, however.

Off-shore drilling, McCain said today, is "safe enough these days that not even hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston," referring to the devastating Category 5 storms of 2005.

At the same time, McCain said he continued to oppose drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, an environmentally sensitive wilderness area that he said deserved to stay off-limits.

Major environmental groups, as well as McCain's Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, argued that renewed off-shore drilling would not increase supplies or lower fuel prices for years. They warned that new drilling off California and other states raised the risk of pollution near fragile wetlands and beaches, as well as important fishing and tourist areas.

"Drilling in protected areas offshore won't solve our energy needs in the short term and in the long term will increase the threat of global warming," said Gene Karpinski, president of the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, also slammed the proposal. "Rather than offering consumers real relief from skyrocketing energy prices, Sen. McCain's plan would merely pad Big Oil's bottom line while putting thousands of miles of pristine beaches and coastline at risk," he said.

The Illinois senator opposes an end to the moratorium and his campaign quickly attacked McCain's proposal as "short-term political posturing from Washington, not the long-term leadership we need to solve our dependence on oil." Obama called for imposing a windfall- profits tax on oil companies and urged investing "in the affordable renewable sources of energy that Sen. McCain has opposed in the past."

Karen Finney, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, accused McCain of "recycling the same old failed Bush policies that have cost American jobs, driven energy prices through the roof, and done nothing to make America less dependent on foreign oil."

Carol M. Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during most of the Clinton administration, called offshore drilling "a dream come true for the big oil companies," according to a statement released by Obama's campaign.

In his speech, McCain suggested giving states a greater share of the royalties paid by oil companies as an incentive to allow off-shore operations. He provided few details of his plan, however.

Opponents to lifting the moratorium argue that individual states won't be able to limit the environmental and economic impact to its borders if an oil spill or other accident occurs.

The issue has perplexed Congress for years.

The Senate last month rejected a proposed Republican energy plan that included a provision similar to McCain's proposal. It would have allowed a state governor to petition to have the federal moratorium lifted for waters off its coast. The measure failed 56-42.

Several coastal states, including New Jersey and Virginia, are potential battleground areas in the November election. California and Florida, another battleground state, have seen strong public opposition to offshore drilling proposals in the past.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes lifting the moratorium but "still absolutely supports" McCain, said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the Republican governor. "They're going to disagree from time to time, and this is one of those cases."

In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist, another Republican governor previously opposed to drilling, issued a nuanced response that stopped short of criticizing McCain.

"Florida has one of the more pristine environments on our planet and we must be pragmatic in protecting both our beaches and our economy," Crist said. "We look forward to the dialogue as we move forward to protect both our environment and our country's economic interests."

Doug Holtz-Eakin, a senior policy advisor to McCain's campaign, acknowledged in a conference call to reporters that allowing new offshore drilling would have no immediate impact on supplies or gas prices. But, he said, "there is an important element in signaling to world oil markets that we are serious."

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