Folks in the oil patch probably cheered when President Bush made his pitch for increased off-shore drilling as a means of fighting high fuel costs. In reality, they probably should have groaned. The President’s ringing endorsement of off-shore petroleum development and his criticism of the Democratic Congress will just make it that much harder to gain approval for extracting oil from the ocean floor.

First Senator John McCain did an about face and proposed more off-shore oil production and then, the President jumped in and reignited the partisan fires. With President Bush’s approval rating a virtual dry hole, how could he possibly think that his pronouncement will advance the cause? The President keeps pressing the issue with his latest gambit being to lift the Executive Order limiting off-shore drilling and challenging Congress to follow suit.

The fall-out is predictable. Democrats like Senators Boxer and Feinstein have responded with vigorous dissents. Even Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has blasted the proposal. Environmentalists were given a boatload of air time to articulate all of the reasons we shouldn’t drill. And Senator Barack Obama has dug in further in his opposition.

None of this is to say that off-shore oil development is really a bad thing. Technological advances, improved safety and mitigation measures, loads of experience and vigilant industry practices make off-shore oil recovery possible without environmental degradation. The problem is political.

Americans and, particularly, Californians reject the idea of trading environmental damage for economic gain as being somehow immoral. What has to be done is to convince the public and the policy makers that off-shore oil development can be done safely and that there will be tight governmental controls to make sure bad things don’t happen. If something does go wrong, the public and policy makers need to know there will be minimum impact on the environment, and the oil companies will have to pay up for any damages. This isn’t an easy sell and can’t be done as long as this is viewed as a partisan issue.

It is also important not to over-promise. Nobody is going to believe that opening up our coasts or developing ANWR are going to make oil prices plummet or solve the underlying problems. People also don’t see this as providing any short-term relief. Off-shore development needs to be presented as part of a comprehensive approach that also includes a heavy dose of conservation and increased emphasis on alternative fuels.

It took Nixon to open up relations with China, and it will probably take a Democrat with impeccable environmental credentials to achieve a breakthrough on this issue. Now, the question is how to convince Al Gore that a bit more drilling is part of the solution.

Douglas Jeffe is a Principal of Issues Management Network, a public affairs firm that has worked extensively with petroleum and environmental issues.