President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to increasing oil exploration, but implied that plans to open new sites could be delayed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
"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," the president said. "Local economies and livelihoods of the people of the Gulf Coast, as well as the ecology of the region are at stake."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the president's plans to pursue new exploration sites could be placed on hold once the cause of the accident is determined.
The administration has deployed federal resources to the region to assist with clean up efforts, and the Defense Department has launched aircraft to help rig operator BP control the spill.
"As I said yesterday, BP is ultimately responsible under the law for paying the cost for response and clean-up operations," Mr. Obama said in the Rose Garden Friday. "But we are fully prepared to meet our responsibilities to any and all affected communities."
The president lifted a 20-year ban on off-shore drilling in March, opening parts of the Atlantic seaboard for oil and natural gas exploration but no lease sales were planned before 2012. The areas designated for exploration require extensive study and preparation, meaning drilling was never expected to begin immediately.
The announcement, however, had Mr. Obama walking a political tight rope, as he tried to get Senate Republicans on board with a climate change bill while appeasing environmentalists by canceling Bush-era drilling leases in Alaska's Bristol Bay.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the expanded off-shore exploration was a step in the right direction, "but a small one that leaves enormous amounts of American energy off limits."
Environmentalists who supported Mr. Obama's campaign promise of a clean energy future cried foul. "The oil industry has been fooling everybody for years saying that they don't have oil spills, that they help local economies," said Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford at the time. "I think it's actually a real betrayal of people that voted for President Obama."
Today Radford charged that the president has continued the failed policies of his predecessors, and blamed bad decisions for the situation in the Gulf.
"I think the real question is will he, as a good leader say 'You know what? I made a mistake, I'm fixing this.' The way to get off of foreign oil is not to make these kinds of catastrophes possible."
The White House has ordered an investigation into the rig explosion and will examine what steps can be taken to reduce the chances of another accident. "The administration's offshore oil and gas plan proposes a thoughtful, scientifically grounded process for determining which new areas on the outer continental shelf are appropriate for exploration and development, and for assessing the potential risks and benefits of development in areas that are being explored.," said Spokesman Ben LaBolt. "Before production moves forward in a new region of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mid or South Atlantic, or the Arctic Ocean, an area will have to undergo thorough environmental analysis, public input and comment, scientific study and review, and a careful examination of the potential risks and spill response capabilities in that area."
But that is not enough for environmental groups, who want the administration to abandon any plans to drill and instead urge the government to focus on getting more energy efficient cars on the road in an effort to lessen the country's dependence on oil.
"This could be the biggest oil spill in world history and it's on a new oil rig, the kind of oil rig that might be placed around the United States of America because of the president's new policies," said Greenpeace's Radford.
Earlier this month Mr. Obama told a crowd in North Carolina that he disagrees with those who say drilling should be completely off limits, and dismissed the notion that new rigs are as dangerous as older ones. "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced," he said in remarks at Celgard, LLC, a lithium battery manufacturer. The Deepwater Horizon rig was built in 2001.
The White House has not ruled out a trip by the president to the Gulf, although a visit in the next few days is off the table, as the focus now is on getting resources to the region and expediting the clean up.
Radford encouraged the president to visit the area, but emphasized that the true test for Mr. Obama is whether he can prevent another accident of such magnitude. "He knows that this can happen. So the real question is will he allow his Katrina to happen? After seeing the storm coming, will this happen again in the future?"