WASHINGTON -- Oil and gas companies, closer than ever to drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, want to explore another frontier: America's coastlines.
The Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the eastern Gulf of Mexico are protected by a federal ban on new oil and natural gas extraction. But with rising worry about US dependence on fuel imports and soaring prices, energy producers feel they now have a unique opportunity to relax or eliminate the restrictions.
''Part of the solution has to be opening more access," whether it's off the coast of California or the Carolinas, said Duane Radtke, head of the natural gas production unit at Dominion Resources Inc. of Richmond, Va.
Environmentalists say the industry has been emboldened to seek offshore drilling because of last month's Senate vote to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Trade groups are lobbying legislators in individual states, where they believe the future decision-making power on offshore drilling belongs.
''The approach to individual states signals a new and more serious effort to try and open up some of these areas," said Lisa Speer, a New York-based senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Roughly 90 percent of America's coastal acreage is protected. Congress enacted the first ban on new offshore leases in 1981. There is a separate ban put in place by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and extended by President Bill Clinton in 1998; it expires in 2012. About 16 billion barrels of oil and 78 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie in offshore areas currently off-limits, according to government and industry statistics. That's enough oil to meet total US demand for more than two years and enough natural gas to supply the country for three and a half years.