President Bush has lifted an executive order banning oil drilling off the coast of the United States.
He wants Congress to end a separate ban on drilling, in order to reduce US dependence on oil imports.
The move will have no effect unless Congress acts as well.
High oil prices have pushed US petrol prices to more than $US4 (£2) per gallon. On Friday, oil prices reached more than $US147 a barrel.
US energy needs are set to be a key issue in November's presidential election.
Republican candidate John McCain is in favour of offshore oil drilling, whereas his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, opposes it.
Democratic Party leaders say oil companies already have 68 million acres under government leases they can drill.
Since 1981, a congressional moratorium has prohibited oil and gas drilling along the east and west coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The area accounts for some 80% of the US's outer continental shelf.
The executive drilling ban was issued in 1990 by President George H W Bush and then extended by President Bill Clinton.
Since then offshore drilling and exploration have been allowed only in the western and central regions of the Gulf of Mexico plus parts of Alaska. The federal bans were enacted in part to protect tourism and lessen the chance of oil spills washing on to beaches.