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Offshore Drilling Plans Under Gun After Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Boat in gulf oil spill

April 28: A boat makes its way through oil that has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico.AFP

President Obama may rethink his plan to expand offshore drilling in the wake of last week's oil rig explosion that sank 50 miles off the Louisiana Coast and led one senator to propose legislation temporarily blocking the administration's effort.   

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., an opponent of expanded offshore drilling, is introducing legislation that would block Obama's plan until the completion of federal investigations into the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that presumably killed 11 workers, critically injured three and left a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that Obama is concerned how any future decision to expand drilling is affected by the accident. 

"I think our focus right now is one, the area, the spill, and two to hopefully determine the cause of it and see the impact that it ultimately may or may not have," he said.

The spill has been spewing 5,000 barrels of sweet crude oil a day into the gulf and has moved steadily toward the mouth of the Mississippi River and the wetland areas east of the river, home to hundreds of species of wildlife and near some rich oyster grounds. Officials predict landfall on Thursday night.

Gibbs said the president's viewpoint of offshore drilling could change once the cause is determined.

"Today, we don't know what the cause is," Gibbs said. "If we're saying that (U.S. officials) came to the president and said, here's what caused it, would, that could that possibly change his viewpoint? Well, of course."

Last month, Obama proposed new offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to central Florida, plus the northern waters of Alaska. Obama also wants Congress to lift a drilling ban in the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico, 125 miles from Florida beaches. Drilling already takes place in western and central areas of the Gulf of Mexico.

The plan was aimed at balancing the concerns of environmentalists and finding ways to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil and create jobs. White House officials also hoped that the plan, which would reverse a long-standing ban on most offshore drilling, would secure support for a climate change bill that is languishing in Congress. 

"The bottom line is this -- given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy," Obama said at the time of his announcement.

At the time, proponents of offshore drilling said the ruling didn't go far enough. Now, at least three key senators opposed to expanded offshore drilling --  Nelson along with Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey -- now are calling on Obama to drop the plan.

"Big Oil has perpetuated a dangerous myth that coastline drilling is a completely safe endeavor, but accidents like this are a sober reminder just how far that is from the truth," Menendez and Lautenberg said in a written statement.

Nelson cautioned that plans for more offshore drilling could set the stage for similar disasters. 

"The tragedy off the coast of Louisiana shows we need to be asking a lot more tough questions of Big Oil," said Nelson, a key player in recent years in the national debate over offshore oil drilling. 

The cost of the spill continues to rise and could easily top $1 billion. On Thursday, Obama stepped up the U.S. government's response by sending Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Environmental Protection Administrator Lisa Jackson to the oil spill site.

Nelson wants the Interior Department to provide a comprehensive report on all U.S. drilling accidents over at least the last decade.

"I think we need to look back over 10 years or so to see if the record denies the industry's claims about safety and technology," he said.

Lautenberg and Menendez, who have long opposed offshore drilling, said 509 oil rig fires have broken out in the Gulf of Mexico since 2006.

While oil rig fires are rare, there were at least three in the Gulf this year before last week's incident and 14 last year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The White House has changed its tune since last week, when Gibbs said the oil rig explosion was no reason to give up the offshore drilling plans.

At the time, Gibbs said that Obama continues to believe that the United States needs a comprehensive solution to its energy problems -- including expanding domestic production of oil and natural gas.

Obama believes most energy production can be done safely and without harming the environment, Gibbs said, but he conceded there will sometimes be accidents.

"In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last," Gibbs told reporters.

Some lawmakers agree.

"I think what people need to be reminded is that for decades we have been drilling in the Gulf with very little incident, and this is a terrible tragedy and we need to get to the bottom of it and find out what happened and ensure that we don't get ourselves in a similar situation," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told the National Journal this week.

The Obama administration has launched a full investigation into the oil rig explosion and lawmakers have asked the owner and operator of the oil rig for documents as part of a congressional investigation into the accident.

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, and the chairman of the committee's investigations subcommittee, Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, made the request Tuesday. The congressmen sent letters to Transocean Ltd., the rig's owner, and to BP PLC, which operates the rig.

Waxman and Stupak want company documents on the risk of an accident, potential responses and contingency plans, among other things.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.