WASHINGTON — The environmental movement, only recently poised for major advances on global warming and other issues, has suddenly found itself on the defensive as high gasoline prices shift the political climate nationwide and trigger defections by longtime supporters.
Opposition to offshore drilling -- once ironclad in places like California and Florida -- has begun to soften. Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida on Tuesday eased his opposition to new energy exploration off the coast.
"Floridians are suffering, and when you're paying over $4 a gallon for gas, you have to wonder whether there might be additional resources that we might be able to utilize to bring that price down," said Crist, a Republican.
At the same time, pressure to drill is mounting.
President Bush today is expected to call on Congress to lift the ban on new offshore drilling, and a House committee will consider a proposal to relax the moratorium.
John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, opposed new offshore drilling in his 2000 presidential campaign. He said Tuesday that he now supported lifting the long-standing ban.
"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 Houston speech on energy security.
Much of the nation's coastal waters are off-limits to new oil and gas leasing until 2012 under executive orders first issued by Bush's father,President George H.W. Bush, in 1991 and extended by President Clinton in 1998. In addition, Congress has taken action annually since 1981 to preclude drilling in coastal areas.
But high petroleum prices have caused policymakers to begin rethinking a variety of issues, including opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration and imposing mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions from oil refineries and power plants.
"For years I have argued that we should avoid offshore drilling and tapping into underground reserves in ANWR until there was an emergency that left us with no choice," Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), a longtime backer of the drilling ban, said recently. "That time has come."
The developments are the latest indication of the growing power of energy prices to overwhelm other priorities.
"We're seeing a large shift in public attitudes toward exploration," said C. Jeffrey Eshelman of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, expressing hope that McCain's change of heart "breaks ground for others to follow."
Environmentalists are increasingly concerned. Richard Charter of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund called this "the most risky year in 29 years" for the drilling ban.
In one sign of concern, an effort to pass a major climate-change bill stumbled this month amid complaints from Democrats as well as Republicans that it would drive up energy prices.
McCain, in reversing his long-held position in support of the offshore ban, said he continued to oppose drilling in the Arctic refuge, an environmentally sensitive wilderness that he said deserved to stay off-limits.
Environmental groups, as well as McCain's Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, argued that renewed offshore drilling would not increase supplies or lower prices for years. They warned that new drilling off California and other states would carry the risk of pollution.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior advisor to McCain's campaign, acknowledged in a conference call to reporters that new offshore drilling would have no immediate effect on supplies or prices.
But he added: "There is an important element in signaling to world oil markets that we are serious."
Congressional Republicans have been seizing on high energy prices to ratchet up the pressure on Democrats to allow more domestic drilling.
"For a long time, for appropriate reasons, we've been very sensitive about offshore drilling in California because of our beautiful Pacific Coast," Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said recently on the House floor, adding that technology could allow for a second look.
Despite skyrocketing oil prices, efforts to weaken the offshore ban face stiff opposition.
"The people of California feel strongly about protecting the coast of California from offshore drilling. And so do I," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Tuesday. 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," he said.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) decried McCain's stance. "He ought to know he'd ruin Florida's $65-billion tourism economy by allowing oil rigs off the coast."
But as Bush adds his support to the drive to lift the ban, a new attempt is expected today in the House Appropriations Committee to allow drilling 50 miles or more off the coast.
The ban, inspired by a devastating 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, has prohibited drilling in most coastal waters except for parts of the Gulf of Mexico and areas off Alaska. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) expressed confidence that Congress would resist efforts to roll back the ban.
But Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said he saw a shifting political climate.
"I think it's changed. And I think $4 a gallon has done that," he said. "This is compelling. I hear that from people everywhere I go."
Martinez said in the new climate, the nation needed resources.
"It's about how can we supply enough product so that there is more supply available to meet the ever-increasing demand," Martinez said. "And offshore may be a part of that equation."
Tamara Lytle of the Orlando Sentinel and William E. Gibson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel contributed to this report.