McCain's View on Expanded Oil Drilling Uncertain

By Kaitlynn Riely | July 7, 2008 | 8:33 PM EDT

( - Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain is "open to the possibility" of tapping America's domestic oil and gas reserves, but it is not clear from his voting record whether he would actively push to expand offshore oil recovery efforts.

On ABC's "This Week -with George Stephanopoulos," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C), a McCain friend and supporter, said the Arizona Republican would be open to talking about looking for oil and gas "in our own backyard."

"John McCain would allow offshore explorations, if the states consent," Graham said Sunday.

Graham's statement echoed the position McCain took in response to a survey conducted by the League of Conservation Voters last year. The League questioned all the 2008 presidential candidates about whether they supported maintaining current moratoriums on new offshore oil and natural gas drilling.

Congress passed the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Moratorium in 1981, which prevented the leasing of coastal waters for the purpose of fossil fuel development.

McCain said he supported expansion of oil recovery in the OCS -- with qualifications.

"I believe there are some OCS areas that can and should be developed for their energy potential but the areas should not be those that are ecologically sensitive to such development," McCain said in the survey.

"I also believe that the will of the people of coastal states like Florida and California on issues related to OCS development off their shorelines must be respected and they should have a say in where moratoria are kept in place as well as the terms of such development that is permitted," he said.

McCain added that if oil retrieval is conducted in the Outer Continental Shelf, it should be done according to strict environmental standards and oversight.

The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service determined in February 2006 that approximately 85.9 billion barrels of "undiscovered technically recoverable" oil could be found on the Outer Continental Shelf.

At a town hall meeting in Michigan last month, McCain said he believed the United States should expand its domestic oil drilling operations, but said the states ought to have the right to make the decision whether to drill or not to drill, Reuters reported.

It is difficult to gauge McCain's past voting record on domestic drilling, mainly because in many instances he did not vote.

In March 2008, McCain did not vote, either for or against, on an amendment to increase spending levels on energy-related programs, including the development of oil and natural gas resources in coastal areas not covered by presidential or congressional moratoria. On the same day, McCain did not vote regarding an amendment to increase spending levels on programs to develop natural gas off the coast of Virginia and to develop oil shale resources on public lands.

In June 2007, McCain did not vote, either for or against, on an amendment to allow the governor of Virginia to petition the secretary of the Interior Department to permit natural gas exploration and extraction off its coast.

But McCain did vote in 2005 in support of an amendment to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) closed to oil drilling.

Phone calls to McCain's Senate office on Monday were not immediately returned.

William Yeatman, an energy policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative group, said it is hard to know what policies McCain would follow regarding domestic drilling should he be elected president in November.

He described McCain's - and many other senators' policies - as contradictory because they support a cap-and-trade policy on emissions, which would raise gas prices, while at the same time they criticize the current high price of gas.

"How long can America, on the one hand, say, 'We're sick and tried of high gasoline prices,' and on the other hand say, 'We're not going to do anything about it; we're not going to tap our own resources?'" Yeatman said. "We're going to be the only industrialized nation that keeps itself from its own resources.'"

Yeatman said if it makes economic sense, the United States should drill for its domestic oil.

"We've got the supply," Yeatman said. "Why not tap into it?"

The American Petroleum Institute also supports domestic drilling, said spokeswoman Cathy Landry.

"The fact of the matter is, we have a lot of resources on our own lands, and off our shores, and if we are able to access those, we could potentially reduce our imports of foreign oil," Landry said.

Landry said she could not speak specifically to either of the candidates' proposals, but said gaining access to the billions of barrels of oil offshore and onshore in the United States could help the country meet its energy demand.

"You have to make the decision and open it, and then get people moving," she said.

The League of Conservation Voters, meanwhile, a major environmental group, issued a statement criticizing McCain's policies after his Michigan speech entertaining the possibility of expanding offshore drilling, describing it as a continuation of President Bush's "drill first, ask questions later" approach.

"We will never break our addiction to oil when the only plan on the table is to find and burn more oil and coal," League President Gene Karpinski said last month.

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