President Obama plans to announce Thursday that he is extending a moratorium on new deepwater oil drilling permits as he reins in offshore drilling plans from shore to shore amid criticism that the administration is not doing enough to tackle the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The president has scheduled a press conference for Thursday afternoon, marking the first time he will take extensive questions from the media since the April 20 explosion -- it is also his first full-blown press conference since last July.
Fending off complaints that the federal government has had a lackadaisical response to the BP spill, the Obama administration Wednesday night previewed new restrictions on oil drilling -- though they don't address the current crisis in the Gulf.
A While House aide said that a moratorium on new deepwater drilling permits will be continued for six months while a presidential commission investigates. Lease sales off the coast of Alaska will be delayed pending the results of the commission's investigation and lease sales planned in the Western Gulf and off the coast of Virginia will be canceled, the aide said.
Shell was looking to begin drilling five exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the Arctic this summer, as far as 140 miles offshore, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to announce Thursday that permit applications will not be considered until 2011 pending further evaluation, an administration official told Fox News.
Those steps, along with new oversight and safety standards also to be announced, are the results of a 30-day safety review of offshore drilling conducted by Salazar at Obama's direction.
The Alaska decision drew swift criticism from the state's junior senator, Democrat Mark Begich, who released a statement saying he was "frustrated" by a move that "will cause more delays and higher costs for domestic oil and gas production to meet the nation's energy needs."
Begich said that while the Gulf spill highlights the need for better oversight, Shell had "updated its plans at the administration's request and made significant investments to address the concerns raised by the Gulf spill."
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu also told Fox News on Thursday that she hopes the president will not "overreact" and shut down shallow-water drilling, which she described as safer. The Democratic senator expressed concern about the economic impact of essentially putting an entire sector on hold.
"We can't overreact to this. I hope the president will separate deepwater drilling from shallow-water drilling and let the industry go forward where we know we can do it safely and the technology is proven and mature," she said. "We've got to be careful that we don't just shut down this industry."
With the moves, Obama is exerting control over the response to the five-week-old spill as criticism about leadership from the White House mounts even as BP's efforts to stop the leak are finally showing promise after a series of failures.
The new announcements also could be an early sign of a fundamental shift in the administration's policies on offshore drilling, which Obama promoted and hoped to expand prior to the April 20 explosion of a drilling rig off the Gulf Coast. The accident killed 11 people and unleashed a gusher of crude that's now begun to wash up on land and cripple seabirds.
The exact causes of the accident are not determined but congressional investigators have released details suggesting BP ignored warning signs of instability in the exploratory well they were attempting to cap when the explosion occurred.
Obama will travel to the Gulf Coast on Friday, his second visit since the accident.
But for all his power to make rules, the president must depend mainly on the company that was leasing the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig when the explosion occurred. BP PLC began a new effort Wednesday to plug the mile-deep well with heavy drilling mud, a tactic never before tried at such depths. On Thursday morning, the tactic appeared to be working though company representatives were cautious to declare any measure of success.
The maneuver's success would prove enormously welcome to the Gulf region, of course, but also to the White House, Congress, federal agencies and other institutions that share responsibility for oversight, regulation and what went wrong.
At the Capitol on Thursday, lawmakers will grill various officials at five congressional hearings. Topics will include the Gulf spill's environmental damage, the administration's response and the impact on small businesses.
On Wednesday, Salazar told the House Natural Resources Committee that lax oversight of oil companies dates to the administration of Republican President George W. Bush.
"Essentially whatever it is they wanted is what they got," Salazar said.
GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado asked when Obama's team would stop blaming problems on an administration that left office 16 months ago. Salazar replied that the federal Minerals Management Service, while heavily criticized lately, is still not "the candy store of the industry, which you and others were a part of."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.