John McCain has outraged environmentalists by demanding a return to offshore oil drilling in Florida and California, where it has been banned for the past 27 years.
Any new oil supplies would take years to come on stream, but the Republican presidential candidate says his plan will reduce petrol prices at the pumps and speed the quest for energy independence in the United States.
In reaching out to voters, panicked by petrol at $4 (£2) a gallon, he also risks alienating Americans looking for a sharp break with the tainted environmental legacy of President George Bush.
Unveiling his energy programme in Texas, the US's main oil-producing state and home to Mr Bush, Mr McCain made clear that his push for offshore oil production is an issue of national security. He also said that Barack Obama's plan to tax huge increases in oil company profits are a return to "failed policies" of the 1970s. Mr McCain never ceases to warn of the peril to America of spending $400bn a year on foreign oil.
"It's a national security issue," he has said, adding that much of the money goes to countries that "do not like us very much", such as Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Mr McCain's energy plan appals Democrats and environmentalists.
The US has some of the toughest restrictions on drilling, with only parts of the Gulf of Mexico open to exploration. Republicans argue that there could be as many as 14 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the US parts of the continental shelf, 80 per cent of it currently closed to drillers. But environmentalists say ending the ban would allow oil rigs to be built as close as three miles from shores, risking calamitous oil slicks.
"There are areas off our coasts that should be open to exploration and exploitation, and I hope we can take the first step by lifting the moratoria," he said at his "Victory" headquarters in Virginia before addressing the oil industry yesterday.
"A return to offshore drilling would be very helpful in the short term in resolving our energy crisis."
Polls increasingly show that the public supports more domestic oil production on federally owned land and offshore areas which are closed to exploration and drilling. As a result, "drilling" – the one-word capsulation of the issue – is turning into the Republicans' strongest domestic issue in the election.
Even as he thrilled oil exploration industry executives yesterday by offering to take them off the leash, Mr McCain remains in favour of action to control global warming by imposing limits on America's vast carbon footprint. In a complete break with the Bush administration, Mr McCain favours a "cap and trade" system to reduce emissions.
At present, the US consumes 25 per cent of the world's oil supply and has only 3 per cent of the world's known reserves, which makes it almost impossible for America "to drill its way to lower oil prices", much less oil independence.
Mr McCain's strategy is to call for more offshore exploration, while leaving it to the states themselves to decide whether to drill or not. "Being a federalist, I am not going to force them to do that," he said. Some see this as a dodge, especially as he is flatly against drilling in the ecologically sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which the Bush administration has been pressing for years.
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