COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - President George W. Bush said Wednesday that high gasoline and oil prices are "legitimate concerns'' for Americans and the answer is a long-range energy plan that includes drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge.
Bush gave his energy pitch in Ohio, where consumers have been battling high winter heating bills and gasoline prices of over $2 a gallon.
Even higher prices are expected nationwide in the upcoming summer driving season.
"Higher prices at the gas pump and rising home heating bills and the possibilities of blackouts are legitimate concerns for all Americans,'' Bush told a crowd of supporters in the auditorium at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial here.
Ohio was at the center of a massive power blackout nearly two years ago, but broadly supported proposals to increase grid reliability have been tangled up in the debate over wider energy legislation in Congress.
"We've had four years of debate on a national energy bill. Now is the time to get the job done,'' said Bush.
While acknowledging that high energy costs are hurting Americans and "are a drag on our economy,'' Bush offered little that would have any short-term impact on prices.
During the flight from Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated the administration's opposition to using the government's emergency oil reserves to try to dampen oil prices.
The more than 600 million barrels of crude in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve - a system of underground caverns on the Gulf coast - should be kept for supply emergencies, said McClellan.
"We do not believe it should be tapped for political purposes or to manipulate prices,'' he said. But he added that if supply disruptions occur, "We would not hesitate to act.''
In Washington, a group of Democrats said Bush should release Strategic Petroleum Reserve oil in a swap that would guarantee that the crude will be replaced when prices decline.
Prices "are as high as they can be and they're getting higher,'' said Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York.
"What are they doing at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue? Twiddling their thumbs.''
Schumer also urged Bush to pressure OPEC to boost supplies, saying, "We're giving OPEC the green light to raise prices further and further and further.''
The president, meanwhile, renewed his call for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR, to oil exploration, a move that has met solid opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress.
"We can now reach all of ANWR's oil by drilling on just 2,000 acres ... the size of the Columbus airport,'' declared Bush, citing technological advancements.
"We can carry out the project with almost no impact on land or wildlife.''
Developing the refuge's oil - possibly as much as 10.4 billion barrels - would help allay U.S. reliance on foreign oil, which accounts for more than half of the crude Americans use.
Dependence on foreign oil "creates a national security issue and an economic security issue,'' said Bush, urging lawmakers to include ANWR drilling in a broad energy bill.
Republican leaders in Congress hope instead to use a budget measure to get approval for drilling in ANWR, thereby preventing Democrats from using a filibuster to block it.
But that approach encountered a setback Wednesday when House lawmakers dealing with the budget refused to include expected revenue from ANWR lease sales in their budget measure.
Before his speech, Bush toured the Battelle Memorial Institute where he was shown a futuristic refrigerator that conserves more energy than the most energy efficient ones now on the market, and a prototype of a hydrogen fuel cell for a "stealth'' Bradley fighting vehicle.
Bush called for pursuing new technologies that would allow coal to be burned in power plants with virtually no pollution and development of more efficient appliances.
But Democrats contended the president's rhetoric is not supported by administration policy.
Senator John Kerry, a Democratic Massachusetts, accused the administration of "shortchanging'' the clean coal programme in its budget.
Bush said he has called for spending $1.6 billion (euro1.2 billion) on clean coal research over five years.
Last week, another group of Democrats accused the Energy Department of "dragging its feet'' on issuing appliance efficiency standards for home furnaces, electric transformers and industrial air conditioners.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, said they would fight attempts in Congress to open the Alaska refuge to oil companies.
"We cannot drill our way to energy independence,'' said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. - AP