The giant patch of oil seeping onto Louisiana coast today is sure to have dire environmental consequences. But the explosion and subsequent spill are also spurring political pushback against the Obama administration's plans to vastly expand drilling off the shores of the United States, a scheme unveiled just one month ago.
The White House called together a press conference yesterday afternoon, lining up heads of the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency to discuss the state of the spill. The administration pledged an "all hands on deck" approach to the spill, but maintained its support of offshore expansion. "We need the increased production," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "The president still continues to believe the great majority of that can be done safely, securely, and without any harm to the environment."
But by Friday morning, the White House had shifted its stance a bit, with adviser David Axelrod announcing plans to pause drilling expansion in an appearance on Good Morning America. But Axelrod was clear that this isn't a permanent move. "All he has said is that he is not going to continue the moratorium on drilling but ... no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here."
Obama tried to strike a balance in a statement Friday between condemning the incident and holding the line on expansion. "I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security, but I've always said it must be done responsibly, for the safety of our workers and our environment," said Obama.
But the White House is under increasing pressure to permanently forestall its offshore plans. What was extended as an olive branch to moderate Democrats and Republicans in hopes of getting a comprehensive energy plan in place has quite literally blown up in Obama's face. Obama had opposed offshore drilling in the early days of his candidacy, before switching to support it amid the "drill, baby, drill" calls of the summer of 2008. It was at that time Congress also allowed the long-standing moratorium on drilling in the outer continental shelf to expire, paving the way for the administration's announcement of plans to open new areas to drilling last month.
Obama has been getting plenty of heat for the concession from coastal state Democrats. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenburg condemned Obama's expansion plan as "Kill, baby, kill," before the rig explosion claimed 11 human lives and imperiled sensitive Gulf Coast ecosystems. Yesterday, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson fired off a missive to Obama, calling for an "immediate halt" to new drilling and warning that he would introduce legislation that would prohibit the Interior Department from enacting its new lease plans. A group of New Jersey Democrats, led by Sen. Robert Menendez, also called on the White House to stand down on offshore drilling Friday, asking the administration to "suspend all action on expanding such exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf immediately and reverse any plans to drill off the Atlantic coast."