WASHINGTON — President Bush, seeking to put political pressure on the Democratic-run Congress in an election year plagued by soaring gasoline prices, called Wednesday for lifting federal bans on offshore oil drilling and other measures to boost oil production.
"For many Americans, there is no more pressing concern than the price of gasoline," Bush said.
The president -- who faces opposition in Congress for his proposals to drill offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as to the leasing of Western federal lands for extraction of oil from shale -- hopes to leverage the rising price of gas to get Congress to budge before election day.
"There is no excuse for delay," Bush said, acknowledging that it would take years for any of his proposals to pump new oil into the U.S. economy. "It's time to move swiftly."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee, spoke out a day before in calling for an easing of the offshore drilling ban.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democrats' presumptive nominee, supports the moratorium.
Conservation groups say long-term solutions lie with the development of alternative fuels rather than drilling for more oil.
Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, likened Bush's speech to "fuel mongering" and suggested that his entreaty to open the arctic refuge left out key facts in an effort to manipulate public opinion.
"What he failed to mention was data released recently by his own Department of Energy that shows, unequivocally, that drilling in the arctic refuge will have no effect on today's high gas prices," Shogan said. "At peak production, two decades from now, the amount of oil speculated to be available in the refuge would lower gas prices by less than 4 cents a gallon.
"Basically, the president wants to destroy one of our last pristine wilderness places to save us a few pennies 20 years from now."
Bush said Wednesday that in the short term, the U.S. economy would continue to rely on oil, and he attacked Congress for blocking his repeated calls for drilling in the Arctic.
"Unfortunately, Democrats on Capitol Hill have rejected every proposal," said Bush, flanked by his Energy and Interior secretaries in the White House Rose Garden. "And Americans are paying the price at the pump."
Since the early 1980s, Congress has banned oil drilling on most of the outer continental shelf, including regions of the Gulf of Mexico close to Florida and regions off California, because of the damage that oil spills could wreak on the environment and beaches that serve as the engine for tourist-driven economies.
And last year, the White House said, Congress added to a spending bill a ban on the leasing of federal lands for oil-shale exploration -- a ban, Bush said, that Congress can just as easily lift.
For some time, Bush has also been pressing for alternative energy sources as a solution to America's "addiction to oil," which he highlighted in a State of the Union address.
"The president says we are addicted to oil, and yet all he and McCain offer is a bigger needle," said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy in San Francisco. "They are focused on supply when they should be focused on reducing demand."
The Energy Information Administration said that opening access to undersea oil fields "in the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030." Drilling in domestic waters off all the coasts except Alaska's would increase annual production from 2.2 million barrels a day to 2.4 million barrels a day, the agency estimates.
The four-point plan proposed by Bush would:
* Increase access to the outer continental shelf, which has been off-limits since 1981. With the advent of technology that can make drilling less risky to the environment, Bush says, the moratorium is "outdated and counterproductive." If Congress lifts the moratorium, he says, he will lift an executive prohibition.
* Encourage the extraction of oil from shale in the West -- which holds as much potential for oil, 18 billion barrels, as the offshore drilling proposal. This amounts to nearly three decades of oil imports from Saudi Arabia, the White House says.
* Permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which President Clinton vetoed and Democratic leaders oppose. This could offer 10 billion barrels of oil, equal to two decades of Saudi imports, according to the White House.
* Expand oil refineries in the U.S., where a refinery has not been built for three decades. Bush proposes regulatory reforms that could remove barriers to refinery construction -- namely public opposition. He proposes that any appeal of a federal permit for refinery expansion must be filed in federal court within 60 days.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Kenneth R. Weiss contributed to this report.