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McCain Energy Policy Targets Offshore Drilling

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today, John McCain headed to the heart of the nation's oil and gas industry. He spoke in Houston this afternoon, where he outlined his views on energy. He called for more offshore oil drilling and later tonight, he'll do some prospecting of his own: He'll attend a pair of fundraisers.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from Houston.

And Scott, we just heard Barack Obama talking in Detroit about reinventing the auto industry. What was John McCain's message there in oil country?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Melissa, you don't come to Houston and talk about plug-in hybrid cars, I guess. John McCain says in the weeks to come, he will offer some bold proposals for new forms of energy. But what he offered today was old-fashioned, carbon-based, supply-side remedies. He wants, as you say, to lift the federal moratorium that prevents offshore drilling along most of the nation's east and west coasts. And he also wants to provide new incentives for the states. So, even if the federal ban is lifted, there's a lot of state opposition to offshore drilling in places like California and Florida. McCain hopes by giving those states a bigger piece of the royalty pie, that might calm some of that opposition.

BLOCK: These ideas, of course, come at a time when drivers are angry about gasoline that's $4 a gallon and headed higher. Would these ideas help?

HORSLEY: In the short run, no. Even though McCain said yesterday lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling would provide some short-term relief, even the supporters, like the American Petroleum Institute, concede it would be seven to 10 years before you'd actually see any additional oil. So the next president - even if he served two terms - would be a lame duck before the first drop of oil would come from many offshore rigs. That's not to say it wouldn't be worth doing, but just it's not likely to help with gasoline prices this summer or next summer or the summer after that.

BLOCK: Now, another short-term idea that John McCain supports is the so-called summer gas-tax holiday.

HORSLEY: That's right. He has proposed suspending the 18-cents-a-gallon federal tax on gasoline through Labor Day. That's been popular with a lot of drivers, but it's been really roundly criticized by economists. They say, first, it wouldn't amount to a whole lot of money for drivers. You might be talking $20 per car per family. And also that it sends the wrong signal. At a time when the oil and gas markets are trying to tell us we need to use less, this would just encourage people to use more.

On Capitol Hill, the gas tax holiday is really not going anywhere. Economists have also been critical of a plan the Democrats have floated for a tax on windfall profits of oil companies. And John McCain today joined the chorus of criticism of that idea. He called it a return to Jimmy Carter's policies - although in the past, McCain has said he himself would be willing to consider a tax on outsized profits of the oil companies.

BLOCK: Scott, John McCain has been trying to appeal to environmentalists in this campaign with some ideas on climate change, for example. Was there anything for them today in his speech in Houston?

HORSLEY: Yes, he has been trying to paint himself as a more green Republican, and today he will renew his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He said there's some parts of our country that are just so pristine they shouldn't be disturbed for oil drilling, no matter how clean the drilling technology has become.

And he also gave a pointed plug to conservation, saying it's no longer just a moral luxury or a personal virtue; it's a necessity.And that's a pretty overt dig at Dick Cheney's famous remark that conservation might be a moral virtue, but it's not an answer to the nation's energy needs. So McCain did give a nod to conservation. It wasn't much more than a nod, but maybe it's too much to expect a candidate to talk about, you know, fuel economy or florescent light bulbs in Houston right before he holds a couple of fundraisers.

BLOCK: Okay, Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Scott Horsley in Houston with the McCain campaign. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.