Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation have long called for lifting the executive ban on exploration in Louisiana’s Outer Continental Shelf, but now that a presidential candidate and top federal agency have joined the push, the issue is gaining new momentum. The United States is the only country that has closed more than 80 percent of its outer continental shelf to drilling. Outdated estimates, last assessed in the late 1980s, assume there are as much as 18 billion barrels of untapped oil and 76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas off of U.S. coastlines.

President George W. Bush has requested that Congress open up OCS area in the Gulf of Mexico to drilling, but he hasn’t made any moves to remove an executive prohibition — issued through his own office — on similar exploration. Generations of Louisiana lawmakers, such as Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Napoleonville Democrat who represents portions of southern Acadiana, have filed legislation to lift the statutory ban, but have been unable to make any headway — until now. “He still supports it and is hopeful,” says Robin Winchell, Melancon’s press secretary, of the recent changes.

For his part, Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., a Lafayette Republican who represents the rest of Acadiana, sent a letter to Bush Thursday asking him to take action immediately to help lower the price of gas, if for nothing else. “The President was right to call on Congress to lift the congressional OCS exploration ban, but he must lift the executive ban now,” Boustany says.  “Increasing American supplies of oil will help decrease the price at the pump squeezing families in southwest Louisiana.  The President can eliminate his ban on exploration now, and Congress should follow his lead.”

In many ways, Boustany is following the lead of his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has advocated increased OCS energy production to both lower prices at the pump and increase U.S. supply. During a speech in Houston, Texas, last month, McCain said it would be a sure-fire way to decrease Americas’ dependence on foreign fuel sources. “The price of a gallon of gas in America stands at more than four dollars. Yesterday, a barrel of oil cost about $134,” said McCain. “And various oil ministers and investment firms have confidently informed us that soon we can expect to pay 200 dollars for every barrel, and as much as seven dollars for every gallon of gas.” When it comes to environmental concerns, McCain has said he would not support drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or other sensitive areas.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service, the federal body that oversees federal oil-and-gas leases, has also called for a lifting of the bans with some limitations. MMS Director Randall Luthi, speaking to reporters last week on a conference call, said the new OCS areas would yield fuel for up to 15 years, during which time the U.S. should focus more resources on alternative energy sources.

As for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the Democrat Party’s assumed presidential nominee, his official energy plan does little to address the expansion of OCS drilling. Obama’s campaign planks focus instead on reducing oil consumption, retooling fuel-economy standards and creating new tax breaks. “John McCain’s plan to simply drill our way out of our energy crisis is the same misguided approach backed by President Bush that has failed our families for too long and only serves to benefit the big oil companies,” Hari Sevugan, an Obama spokesperson, recently told The Washington Post.

One of the more viable measures floating around Congress to lift the OCS ban is sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania and 43 other House Republicans, including Boustany. Murphy also co-signed the letter to the President penned by Boustany. Winchell said Melancon was not asked to take part in this particular push by Republicans, but he does support the intent.

UPDATE: MSNBC is reporting this morning that Bush will announce his plans to lift the executive order on OCS drilling. Click here for the story.

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