RALEIGH (AP) — Sen. Elizabeth Dole said North Carolina should have the option of allowing oil exploration off the state's coast, backing away from her long-held support of a federal moratorium on Atlantic drilling.
In a statement to The Associated Press, Dole said she supports lifting a 27-year-old moratorium that has prohibited exploration off the North Carolina coast.
"Now, more than ever, responsible and practical steps are needed to increase our energy independence and strengthen economic and national security," Dole said.
The Republican, facing re-election for the first time, said the option should be available to states so long as the exploration is safe, clean and not visible from land. She plans to sign on to a GOP measure allowing states to open areas at least 50 miles off their shorelines to exploration that could bring in extra revenue for the states.
For years, Dole had supported the ban on oil exploration, saying it was necessary to protect tourism and marine habitat.
"There is no question that now, more than ever, we must work to end our dependence on foreign oil," Dole said in a 2005 floor speech.
"But we cannot do so by ignoring the wishes and economic needs of the majority of the people of North Carolina, and many other coastal states, who oppose this exploration."
But as gas prices have passed $4 a gallon, Dole has increasingly softened her stance on offshore exploration.
She said at a forum with Democratic rival Kay Hagan last weekend that she still opposed the idea but would consider a measure if it came across her desk.
Hagan's campaign said the drilling plan indicates that Dole and other politicians have given oil companies too much power over Washington.
"In an election year, it's no wonder Sen. Dole is running from gas prices that are pushing $5 a gallon, pushing a faux plan that will do nothing to lower our gas prices in the short-term and will actually do harm to our coastline in the long-term," Hagan spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan said.
Hagan, like fellow Democrats in Congress, opposes the offshore drilling plan.
Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, have said offshore drilling could help the nation ease its dependence on foreign oil and provide short-term relief to gas prices.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has opposed the idea.
The Interior Department estimates that opening remaining U.S. coastal waters could provide access to 18 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas beneath the 574 million acres.
But experts believe it could take years before production begins.
Leasing likely wouldn't begin until 2012 for the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the plans wouldn't significantly affect production or prices before 2030, according to a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration last year. And the report indicated that the new oil would do little to move prices after that.
Gov. Mike Easley said last week he sees a "very poor" chance that North Carolina would move to allow offshore drilling if the federal ban was ever lifted.