WASHINGTON — President Bush lifted a long-standing White House ban Monday on new oil and gas drilling off the nation's coastlines and pressured Congress to take a similar step, stoking the battle over how Washington should respond to high gasoline prices.
Bush's decision to lift the executive order, which was imposed by his father in 1990 and renewed by President Clinton, will have no effect unless Congress cancels its own ban on offshore drilling.
But with the price of gasoline sitting above $4 a gallon, his action places the possibility of new drilling squarely in the public debate and gives him a political cudgel. Lawmakers are increasingly nervous about high gas prices in an election year, and Bush made clear he intended to use the pro-drilling argument against Congress' majority party.
"With this action, the executive branch's restrictions on this exploration have been cleared away," he told reporters in the White House Rose Garden.
"This means that the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress.
"Now the ball is squarely in Congress' court," he added. "Democratic leaders can show that they have finally heard the frustrations of the American people by matching the action I have taken today."
Some drilling advocates have cited estimates that 18 billion barrels of oil could be recovered.
Democrats and environmentalists said that even if obstacles to new drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico were quickly lifted, the resulting gasoline would be years away, as refineries are running at or near capacity -- so there would be little or no immediate effect on supplies or prices.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), rejecting the president's challenge, countered that Bush should tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower prices by increasing supplies.
He has refused to do so, arguing that the reserve was created to relieve a national emergency.
The president's position raised special concern among politicians from California, where an oil spill off Santa Barbara in 1969 soaked birds and coated beaches in sludge.
"In California, we know offshore drilling is not the answer," Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
Schwarzenegger called instead for development of alternative energy sources -- a category that includes wind and solar power -- and said a choice of power supplies was "the only way we will ultimately bring down fuel costs."
The congressional ban on new offshore drilling was first approved in 1981, in an Interior Department appropriations bill, and has been renewed annually since then.
On Monday, two key Democratic senators -- West Virginia's Robert C. Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and California's Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Interior appropriations subcommittee -- pledged to fight any effort to relax the ban.
Congressional Republicans have pushed Democrats to support expanded domestic oil production, and they plan a new effort next week to allow offshore drilling.
Jeff Eshelman of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, a trade group for independent oil and gas producers, said Bush's statement placed "the pressure on Congress to act before the elections."
"It could be one of the most monumental votes faced by candidates running for office," he said.
In a sign of the changing mood, Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), who voted in 2006 against relaxing the moratorium, said in a recent interview, "I am becoming more flexible on the issue, which is clearly a function of the crisis in which we find ourselves."
Gas prices are "all anybody wants to talk about," he said.
"What I hear all the time is . . . 'I'm tired of sending all this money over to those people who hate us,' " he said. "And now it's a ridiculous amount of money we're sending to those people who hate us, and we need to stop that."
Jack N. Gerard, who this fall will become president of the industry's American Petroleum Institute, cheered Bush's action.
"Clearly, the ground is shifting on energy policy," said Gerard, currently the head of the American Chemistry Council.
To Lisa Speer, director of the water and oceans program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, Bush's action removes "one layer of protection" for the coasts.
The battle to preserve the drilling ban has become tougher, she said. "It's a reflection of the pressure that politicians are feeling on gas prices. Everybody has to be very vigilant over the next few months until Congress goes out."
Dennis T. Kelso, executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, said: "While renewed offshore drilling will do little in the long or short term to help relieve a serious energy crisis, it does guarantee further ongoing destruction of our ocean resources."
Those who want to let states decide whether to permit offshore exploration say that technological advances have made drilling safer.