At $4 a gallon, the high price of gas is hurting American families and putting a stranglehold on the nation's economy. This month, a survey funded by the nonpartisan Surdna Foundation found that families across the nation are paring budgets to pay for skyrocketing fuel costs, with poor families even scrimping on food and medicine. Days ago, Northwest Airlines' Doug Steenland grimly warned Congress of the risks of "out-of-control" fuel prices for his industry and others.

With so much at stake, President Bush and other political leaders are right to weigh all options as potential solutions to what is clearly an energy crisis. Of all the proposed measures, none has sparked a more bitter and unproductive debate than tapping into the nation's vast oil reserves in areas currently off limits: offshore and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The acrimony has spilled over into the presidential race, turning the issue into an ill-informed litmus test of environmental credentials. A knee-jerk "no" has equaled a green candidate. A politician wanting to discuss the issue is derided as a pawn of Big Oil, even as some polls show that a majority of Americans now support drilling in off-limits areas. The snap judgment approach is unfortunate.

While there are good reasons ANWR should remain off limits, there are also good reasons to reconsider the nation's offshore oil deposits, where drilling and exploration have long been banned thanks to a 1982 congressional moratorium and a 1990 executive order by President George H.W. Bush. Off-limits coastal areas are estimated by the U.S. Department of the Interior to hold close to 19 billion barrels of recoverable oil, as well as substantial supplies of natural gas. By some estimates, the oil available is the equivalent of about a decade's worth of U.S. oil production -- not enough to end import dependence but enough to smooth the nation's transition to renewable fuels.

Much has changed since the 1982 moratorium. Though some environmental advocates dispute this, drilling technology has advanced over the past quarter-century. Oil companies can drill more efficiently in deeper water with significantly less risk to the environment. "Compared to worldwide tanker spill rates, outer continental shelf operations are more than five times safer,'' according to the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service.

It's still a matter of debate how long it would take for oil from these new ocean wells to move into the supply pipeline. But exploring these coastal areas could have an immediate impact at the pump. Just the possibility that domestic oil supplies are expanding likely would deter speculators, sending prices down. There was a real-life example of that effect this past week when a mere Energy Department announcement of higher-than-expected fuel supplies sent crude oil prices tumbling temporarily.

Drilling would also provide an economic boost to coastal states and have enough impact on oil prices to keep the Arctic wilderness off limits. The nation should honor its pledge to protect ANWR -- one of the last great untouched wilderness areas. Costly legal battles with environmental advocates -- who view the Arctic as a last stand -- would also escalate the time and financial investment needed to realize this area's energy potential. Then there's the industry's track record in the Arctic. Two years ago, British Petroleum corrosion problems led to a 267,000-gallon spill on Alaska's North Slope.

As a nation, we must push forward to a future in which clean, renewable energy fuels cars and heats homes. But there's a long way to go. In the meantime, breaking the backs of consumers and industry still dependent on fossil fuels is unacceptable. Relief is needed.

Rice University expert Kenneth Medlock has it right when he states that the nation needs a "portfolio" of solutions as it shifts to renewables. Nuclear energy and what may be the most potent tool of all -- conservation by consumers -- should all be part of a countrywide conversation on energy as the presidential election draws near. Offshore drilling isn't a panacea, but its potential role in the nation's transitional energy portfolio deserves thoughtful deliberation.