Muckraker: Grist on PoliticsJohn McCain said today that he believes what Big Oil says about the amount of oil still available in the United States’ outer continental shelf, rather than estimates offered by energy experts, economists, and the government’s Energy Information Administration.

A questioner in the crowd at the National Urban League conference in Orlando, Fla., asked the Republican presidential candidate about reports that offshore drilling would reap no benefit for consumers for at least a decade, if even then.

“I don’t agree,” McCain replied. “In fact I met with oil executives just a few days ago in California … and the fact is that we can, using existing facilities, expand our oil production within months, according to these executives.”

McCain continued, “In my view and that of oil company executives that I’ve talked to — the people that actually do it, not those that comment on television, but those that actually do it — we could, in a very short time, have a beneficial effect as we bridge the gap between our dependence on foreign oil and becoming energy independent.”

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“So I disagree with those experts and I’ve talked to the actual people that do the work, that are in the business that say within months and certainly within a very short time, we could have additional oil supply for this nation,” he said. “So we ought to drill now.”

Maybe the oil execs who spoke with McCain should check in with the American Petroleum Institute. The industry association states up front that opening the outer continental shelf for exploration wouldn’t result in bringing new oil to market for five to ten years. Here’s what API had to say [PDF]:

Before a lease sale could even occur, a complete environmental study would have to be conducted by the government. Once leased, it could take anywhere from five to 10 years for production to begin, depending on the amount of oil and gas discovered, availability of infrastructure and the geological complexity of the region. In an area like Destin Dome, offshore Florida, where there is a confirmed discovery of natural gas and infrastructure exists, supplies could come on more quickly, perhaps in less than five years. Frontier and deepwater areas with no infrastructure in place would take longer.

Guy Caruso, the Bush-appointed head of the Energy Information Administration, has said that offshore drilling wouldn’t affect the price of gas very much, citing a recent report from his agency. This directly counters claims that drilling would bring down energy prices in the short term. “It does take a long time to develop those resources,” said Caruso. “Therefore the price impact is muted by that.”

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Of course, McCain is right — oil executives have been claiming that there are potentially major gains to be made if the moratorium on offshore drilling is allowed. ExxonMobile’s executives touted their support earlier this week, and Shell and BP.

McCain’s rival, Democrat Barack Obama, has blasted the GOP candidate’s support for offshore drilling, saying that claims of immediate benefit to consumers is disingenuous. “John McCain’s proposal … would not provide families with any relief, this year, next year, five years from now,” he said. “Believe me, if I thought there was any evidence at all that drilling could save people money who are struggling to fill up their gas tanks by this summer or the next few years, I would consider it, but it won’t.”

Obama did, however, tell a Florida newspaper today that he could support some drilling if it were necessary to enact a comprehensive energy plan. Regardless of where the candidates stand, Congress would need to lift their ban on offshore drilling, an issue that has tied the body up in knots all this summer.