The massive oil spill off the Gulf coast has complicated President Barack Obama's plan to expand offshore oil drilling in areas long out of bounds to energy development, forcing administration officials to promise a more critical look at the potential environmental risks.
As a slick of oil moved closer to the Louisiana coast on Thursday, White House officials acknowledged that the explosion and spill at a BP oil rig 40 miles off shore could impact future decision on offshore drilling, depending on what investigators determine caused the accident.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said depending on the cause, the spill could affect what areas would be viewed as acceptable for drilling — or even change the president's "viewpoint" on new offshore oil drilling.
"We need to learn from the incident," said White House energy adviser Carol Browner. She said those lessons "will be folded in" as the Interior Department goes through a lengthy process of issuing offshore oil development leases.
But Gibbs and Browner said — at least for now — Obama remains committed to plans to expand offshore drilling to new areas of the Outer Continental Shelf.
Obama a month ago called for new offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to central Florida, plus the northern waters of Alaska. He also wants Congress to lift a drilling ban in the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico, 125 miles from Florida beaches.
The administration hopes the drilling proposal — along with increased federal loan guarantees to ramp up construction of nuclear power plants — will attract some Republican votes on a bill to curb emissions of pollution-causing gases blamed for global warming.
"Obviously this will become part of the debate" on climate change, White House energy adviser Carol Browner said Thursday.
The legislation backed by the White House aims to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It also would expand domestic production of oil, natural gas and nuclear power.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a drilling opponent, said he hoped the White House statements were a sign that the administration was incorporating the reality of oil spills into its approach to coastline drilling. White House officials had minimized the impact of the oil spill in the days immediately following the April 20 explosion, which left 11 people missing and presumed dead. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day are spewing from the blown-out well off the Louisiana coast.
"There are a lot of Americans — particularly in places where coastline drilling doesn't currently exist — who are watching the dramatic images from the Gulf and rethinking whether they would accept such a scene closer to home," Menendez said. He will work to ensure that the New Jersey shore never comes under a similar environmental threat, Menendez said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., meanwhile, filed legislation blocking the Interior Department from conducting seismic tests in the Atlantic Ocean as part of its plan to expand offshore drilling.
"Questions about the practices of the oil industry raised in the wake of this still-unfolding incident require that you postpone indefinitely plans for expanded offshore drilling operations," Nelson wrote in a letter to Obama.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said the type of explosion that led to the Gulf Coast oil spill is extremely rare, adding that oil rigs in the Gulf and other offshore sites are subject to close federal oversight.
Obama has outlined "a thoughtful, scientifically grounded process" to determine which offshore sites are appropriate for exploration and development, and for assessing the potential risks and benefits of oil development, Hayes said. Before production moves forward in a new region of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic or the Arctic Ocean, the site will have to undergo an environmental analysis, with public comments and an examination of the potential risks and spill response capabilities in that area, he said.
No lease sales would be scheduled until at least 2012 in new areas the administration is considering for oil development.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the oil rig explosion needs to be taken into account when weighing Obama's plan to expand offshore drilling.
"I do know that what we had been told is that the technology has changed, that there's much safer drilling (now) than decades ago. Clearly, there's room for improvement," she told reporters Thursday. "And I think the people who are affected in the area would want there to be some careful review of what exposure people on the coastlines have to this drilling."
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