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Gulf of Mexico oil spill imperils Obama's offshore drilling plan

President Obama's plan to open new swaths of coastline to offshore drilling is being questioned anew in light of the potentially disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Politics of the pending climate-energy bill may be affected, too.

By Staff writer / April 30, 2010

Shrimp boats sit idle in Venice, La., near the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, Friday. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has prompted skepticism about President Obama's plan to open new stretches of coastline to offshore drilling.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that is imperiling wildlife and ocean-linked industries is also endangering President Obama's plan to open new swaths of America's coastline to offshore oil and gas drilling.

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Although the Deep Horizon oil rig spill has not yet aroused – and may never provoke – the same intense public anger as the Exxon Valdez or Santa Barbara spills, it has already shifted the political calculus for the White House on offshore energy and undercut a comprehensive climate-energy bill in the US Senate, political analysts say.

"It clearly is already having an impact on the president's plans for expanding exploration on the outercontinental shelf," says David Pumphrey, deputy director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

After a 27-year moratorium on new offshore drilling expired in 2008, the president last month unveiled plans to allow drilling in Atlantic waters from Virginia to mid-Florida, off Alaska's northern coast, and westward in the Gulf of Mexico from 125 miles off Florida's coast. The Pacific coast is to remain off limits, along with environmentally sensitive salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay, Alaska, and heavily fished waters north of Delaware through New England.

"It doesn't look like there is yet any decision to stop plans for leasing [oil and gas tracts] that were already in progress," Mr. Pumphrey says. "But if the spill continues to grow as it is now, it poses a serious risk that [Mr. Obama] won't be able to move aggressively with new offshore oil and gas development."

A temporary hold

As a brownish oil-and-water mix began to lap at orange barriers meant to guard the marshlands of the Louisiana coast, the president on Friday deployed additional military resources – and sent advisers to the scene and onto morning talk shows. Their message: The federal government is mobilizing to help – and by the way, new oil drilling offshore is on temporary hold.

"No additional drilling has been authorized and none will [be] until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here," David Axelrod, a senior White House advisor, said on "Good Morning America."

Obama later said, in more cautious language that did not foreclose offshore energy exploration, that he had ordered a review of "this incident" and a report on whether "additional precautions and technologies" are required.

"I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security," the president said. "But I've always said it must be done responsibly, for the safety of our workers and our environment."

Rumblings in Congress

Yet with the news Thursday that the underwater wellhead was gushing more oil than thought – about 5,000 barrels a day, or five times the previously projected rate – opposition to offshore drilling began to ferment in Congress as lawmakers called for hearings into the causes of the spill.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Fla., who opposes Obama's offshore oil plan, is urging the president to reverse the drilling expansion in coastal waters.

"It's unclear whether any additional shutoff controls would have made a difference in this case," Senator Nelson wrote in a Thursday letter to Obama. "But the 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 oil drilling operations."

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