After Oil Spill, Obama Uncertain on Offshore Drilling Policy

By Fred Lucas | May 3, 2010 | 4:10 PM EDT

Workers place oil containment booms around in the central marshes in St. Bernard Parish, La. on Monday, May 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Washington ( – Whether President Obama’s plan for limited expansion of domestic offshore drilling continues or is scrapped will depend on the findings of an Interior Department investigation into the oil spill in the Gulf Coast, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced an investigation last week into the spill off the coast of Louisiana by BP, the worst U.S. oil spill in decades. The previous month, President Obama had announced plans to open certain areas of the Eastern Seaboard and part of the gulf. Environmental groups have cited the recent oil spill as a reason not to expand the offshore drilling.
“The president was specific in ordering Secretary Salazar to look at all the possible aspects of what could and did go wrong in this instance, to report back to him in that 30-day period,” Gibbs said. “This is an administration that is going to take whatever information it gets from that and have it dictate our decision in going forward.
“I think it would be premature to get too far ahead of where Secretary Salazar’s investigation is. … The investigation’s end is to determine what happened. We will use that information going forward to dictate any changes in our policy,” he added.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said halting plans for offshore drilling because of the spill would be like stopping the space exploration program because of the 1986 Challenger explosion.
“We’ve had problems with car design, but you don’t stop driving,” Graham said Friday, according to The Greenville News. “The Challenger accident was heart-breaking, but we went back to space. The biggest beneficiaries of this proposal to stop drilling would be overseas oil interests, OPEC and regimes that don’t like us very much.”
Salazar announced last week the establishment of the new Outer Continental Shelf Safety Board to conduct a full review of offshore drilling safety and technology issues, and to tighten oversight of industry equipment standards.
“We must continue to do everything we can to oversee and support BP’s efforts to stop and clean up the oil that is spilling from the well head,” Salazar said during a visit to command centers in Houma and Robert, Louisiana. “At the same time, we must take aggressive action to verify the safety of other offshore oil and gas operations, further tighten our oversight of industry’s practices, and take a careful look at all the questions that this disaster is raising.”
The current Obama policy calls for allowing drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and increasing oil and gas exploration in frontier areas, such as parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans while restricting drilling on Alaska’s Bristol Bay. According to the White House release, “The strategy will guide the current 2007-2012 offshore oil-and-gas leasing program, as well as the new 2012-2017 program that this administration will propose.”
Meanwhile, House Republicans want to find out whether the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency that oversees offshore drilling, imposed necessary regulations to ensure safety of vessels drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and whether “MMS improperly awarded safety certifications to BP, Transocean, and the Deepwater Horizon rig.”
“Reports indicate that the Deepwater Horizon appears to have had a faulty ‘dead man’ shut-off switch which, if functioning properly, could have averted this massive spill,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to Salazar.
“The malfunctioning ‘failsafe’ device raises serious questions about any safety inspections or audits conducted by MMS or third parties during the certification process. This, in turn, casts serious doubt upon any safety awards that MMS may have granted to BP and/or Transocean within the past year,” he added.
Issa’s letter continued, “The American people also have a right to know whether the federal government possessed and implemented an appropriate emergency response plan to mitigate this disaster. Though U.S. Coast Guard assets quickly arrive on-scene to assist with the fire and rescue effort, there appears to have been a delay in dispatching significant resources to assist in the environmental clean-up.”