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.
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