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.
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."
Climate-energy bill affected?
The spill also worsens political prospects for Obama's energy policy, which is tied to sweeping climate-energy legislation pending in the Senate. The bill curbs fossil fuel use overall, but it also allows for expanded offshore drilling, which is meant to win Republican and some industry support. That allowance may now become problematic.
"We would suggest the Gulf spill has made the political hurdles [for the climate-energy bill] ... even higher," wrote Kevin Book in a newsletter analysis Friday for ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington energy market research firm. Offshore drilling, he wrote, may have shifted "from political lubricant to political toxin."
The oil disaster – which killed 11 workers in the April 20 rig explosion and may damage hundreds of wildlife species – may cause senators to shift against the offshore drilling proposals contained in the energy-climate legislation, some environmentalists say.
"We're dealing with what could become one of the most destructive oil spills in US history," says Richard Charter, a spokesman for Defenders of Wildlife who specializes in offshore drilling issues. "The Santa Barbara spill [in 1969] led to bipartisan support for a moratorium on offshore drilling that lasted 27 years. This spill could be economically and ecologically much larger than that."
Much depends on how bad the spill gets. "The offshore drilling plan will have to be looked at in the light of how bad this gets," says the CSIS's Pumphrey. "The White House will have to see if it still makes sense politically to move forward on that."
Concerns about Arctic offshore drilling, too
The spill in the Gulf is raising questions about whether the oil industry can drill safely in deep water, but also whether it's safe to drill in Arctic waters, wrote Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior and Environment, in a Thursday letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
"If the drilling industry is incapable of capping a blowout in temperate waters in a region with more than 80 years of offshore experience in the close proximity of equipment, manpower and technical expertise, I have grave doubts about the industry’s response capabilities in the frigid Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast," Representative Moran wrote.
Shell Oil officials told the Associated Press that the company does not expect the Gulf spill to delay permits for drilling this summer in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska's north coast. "We don't have any reason to believe those outstanding permits will be impacted by recent events in the Gulf of Mexico," said Curtis Smith, Shell Oil's Alaska spokesman.
But presidential advisers, in remarks Friday morning, left the door open to a shift, depending on the outcome of investigations of the spill.
"Obviously, what's occurring now will also be taken into consideration as the administration looks to advance that [offshore leasing] plan – and what makes sense and what might need to be adjusted."