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Obama's offshore dance

By Kate Sheppard

President Obama faced tough questions from the media Thursday about the administration's response to the gulf disaster. But more significant in the long term is how the gulf oil spill is shaping his approach to energy. Obama and his administration continue to struggle with balancing a defense of domestic drilling policy and the likelihood that the consequences of accidents don't outweigh the benefits.

It's an awkward spot for Obama. In what turned out to be spectacularly terrible timing, on March 31, Obama announced a major expansion of offshore drilling. Just days before the oil spill, a confident Obama told a crowd, "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills."

Of course, no one could have predicted the gulf catastrophe. Even now we are just beginning to learn the extent of it, as the government released a new estimate of the spill, putting it between two and five times the earlier figure. And Obama clearly saw both offshore drilling and his earlier expansion of support for nuclear power as olive branches to moderates in hopes of passing a comprehensive agenda. Now he's stuck with finding a way to keep it on the table without looking like he's ignoring the gulf situation.

His announcement on Thursday scaled back much of the offshore drilling he proposed in March. It extended a moratorium on all new drilling operations for six months or until a commission that he announced last week to study the question completes its report. He suspended planned exploration in the Arctic that was to begin in July and a proposed lease sale off the Virginia coast. Operations at 33 deep-water rigs in the Gulf are also on hold. The president also criticized the "cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship" between the industry and the government agencies intended to regulate it.

Pressed on whether he regrets the endorsement of offshore drilling, Obama held firm. "I believe what I said at that time, which was that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall energy mix," he said. "It has to be part of our overall energy strategy." Instead, he pushed blame back to oil companies: "Where I was wrong was in the belief that the oil companies had their acts together when it came to worst-case scenario."

But the reality remains -- and he touched on this briefly -- that drilling this deep in the Gulf of Mexico for our little recoverable reserves is inherently dangerous. That is true regardless of how much oversight regulators exert and regardless of how extensive industry plans to mitigate a spill may be.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. For more of her stories, see here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 27, 2010; 5:20 PM ET
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"...drilling this deep in the Gulf of Mexico for our little recoverable reserves is inherently dangerous. That is true regardless of how much oversight regulators exert and regardless of how extensive industry plans to mitigate a spill may be."

Yes. That's what I wanted to hear him say. Prefaced with the words "I was wrong."

The meager benefit from this activity does not justify the inherent risk of a disaster such as we are currently experiencing.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

"Of course, no one could have predicted the gulf catastrophe."

I'm trying to determine whether or not this is sarcasm. I hope it's sarcasm.

Posted by: slag | May 27, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

The basic problem with President Obama's Energy Policy is he refusing to cross the final line so as to articulate totally non-carbon based energy policy. He is still caught up in 'oil is necessary as the bridge' when America moves clearly into the alternative energy based economy.

President is not advocating overhaul of tax regimen so that 'oil dependency' is inherently discouraged.

His lukewarm backing to a lukewarm Kerry-Lieberman bill is hardly reassuring here. We are doing circles and not breaking this vicious circle of 'oil dependency' forcefully.

It is clear that President Obama is not the leader who would want to bite that bullet.

Posted by: umesh409 | May 27, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse

I want a clean, green economy as much as the next progressive. But I've read enough and been around enough to know that the transition is going to take time. Time we just barely have.

Why Obama is taking such tentative steps to accelerate the transition is frustrating. Of course we can't give up oil next month, year, decade. But we can reduce our use, starting now.

All we need is a strong, clear price signal. The Republicans would go ape-pucky, but if this isn't the time to impose a carbon-based fuel tax, then the establishment Democrats have admitted that they never will.

And that would be a tragic way for the US to fall far, far behind the nations that will be transitioning to post-carbon fuels now, while the getting is good.

Posted by: RalfW | May 27, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse


wouldn't a GOOD LIBERAL come on and say we never should have been out there, selling out to businesses, giving them the keys to the store, blah blah blah . . . and then go on to say that while obviously not intentional the likelihood of it happening is greater in Deepwater than not and the ability to fix it and fix it easily is much much harder in Deepwater.

My God I shouldn't have to do your work for you!

That being said Morning Joe (my new favorite show!) also noted how the President danced in yesterday's press conference from BLAME BP to "we're in control" to BLAME BP all in the span of one speech.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 28, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

@umesh409: "The basic problem with President Obama's Energy Policy is he refusing to cross the final line so as to articulate totally non-carbon based energy policy"

Well, I think he probably wants to remain president. There's a reason this has been a productive administration, and a productive congress. Obama definitely isn't one to let "the perfect" get in the way of "the better than nothing".

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 28, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

@visionbrkr: At least he was right when was blaming BP. I don't think there's much doubt that BP was penny-wise and pound-foolish, and saved $500k or a million bucks per rig by not putting in 3rd or 4th level protections. I've certainly heard as much, although I've not heard the specifics confirmed. But I've been in enough operations to know that it's hard to get money spent preparing for what might happen when there are projects that are happening, right now. So I see a million dollars worth of computer equipment in a server room that will be flooded with water if there's ever a fire on the other side of the building, because it's too hard to find the money to purchase a non-water based fire suppression system for something that might not ever happen.

BP is at fault here.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 28, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

I really find it curious how people take this opportunity to snip at others who vote for a different wing of the Party. This disaster will impact everybody regardless of political bent. We breathe the same air, live on the same planet and besides which there ain't a lick of difference between the so-called Democrats and the Republicans. Try to imagine if you can living on a planet with dead oceans. The oceans filter our air and supply us with oxygen. Could Ron Paul fix a dead planet? Could John Kennedy? How about the pope? We need to stop small thinking and think about saving our lives, not just our livelihood. Just how much petroleum is in the hole in the ground in the Gulf? How much can flow out before the pressure slacks off? What is flowing back into the hole and how will that affect things?

What happens to Life if we can't stop the oil flow? Please note I did not ask about "Republican Life" or "Democratic Life", because those designations are imaginary. We are all of us knee deep in chemicals and raw sewage mixed with petroleum. Does it matter how I voted?

Posted by: WillShirley | May 30, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

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