WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Tuesday called on Congress to allow oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to help buttress consumer confidence and ease runaway gasoline and food prices.
Bush attributed high prices to the lack of refining capacity, and argued that opening the Arctic refuge -- a proposal long opposed by Democrats and environmentalists -- would let the United States produce a million additional barrels of oil every day. He called it an "intermediate-term" solution to the gasoline price problem.
"If Congress is interested, they can send the right signal by saying we are going to explore for oil and gas in U.S. territories, starting with ANWR," he said.
Bush used a Rose Garden news conference to go on the offensive against the Democratic-controlled Congress, accusing lawmakers of dragging their feet on bills that would address pocketbook issues.
He delivered an unusually dark assessment of the economy, saying the nation is in "very difficult times, very difficult."
There are no quick fixes, Bush said.
"If there was a magic wand to wave, I'd be waving it, of course," Bush said, referring specifically to gasoline prices, which have climbed $1.40 a gallon in 18 months. "But there is no magic wand to wave right now. It took us awhile to get to this fix."
Besides opening ANWR, Bush called on Congress to expand nuclear power, revamp the government-sponsored mortgage lenders to help the housing market, and end some farm subsidies that contribute to high food costs.
Democrats pushed back, accusing Bush of trotting out old ideas and of favoring big oil companies at the expense of average Americans.
At a Democrat news conference, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said: "He says he's concerned with high gas prices and high food prices and student and home loan problems. But the truth is that the president has closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears as these crises have grown."
WOULD ANWR HELP?
Gov. Sarah Palin lauded Bush's call for ANWR exploration.
"President Bush is right. Here in Alaska and across the nation, communities are feeling the pinch of high energy costs. It is absurd that we are borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars from one foreign country to buy oil from another," she said. "It is well past time for America to develop our own supplies."
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, spoke on the Senate floor on behalf of her bill, co-sponsored by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and others, to automatically open ANWR if the world oil price tops $125 a barrel for five days. This week oil prices pushed within $6 of that trigger, a price that just a few years ago seemed absurdly high. Murkowski's bill would channel the federal revenue from ANWR to alternative energy development, programs to help improve energy efficiencies and to those in need.
"Americans are tired of hearing about why the cost of energy is so high; what they want to know is what we in Congress are doing to drive down prices," Murkowski said.
ANWR is considered the nation's best onshore prospect for huge oil discoveries.
But opening the coastal plain is strongly opposed by environmentalists, most Democrats and a few moderate Republicans because of the area's environmental sensitivity and arguments that even large amounts of ANWR oil wouldn't help much, especially the immediate problem of high prices.
In 2005, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that it would take about 10 years before oil would flow from ANWR if drilling were approved. By 2025, it said, the additional oil would have only a slight impact on global oil prices and cause a decline in gasoline prices of less than a penny a gallon, using constant 2003 dollars. Oil imports would drop from an expected 68 percent of U.S. demand to 64 percent, the EIA said.