The moratorium, recommended by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a May 27 report, has been panned by the team of engineers Mr. Salazar had review it. Five of the seven engineers said deep-water drilling has a strong safety record and that targeted inspections make more sense than a blanket moratorium.
But the White House stands by the moratorium, saying the government can't take a chance on another explosion like the one that occurred April 20 on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. The accident killed 11 workers and created a leak that has gushed millions of gallons of oil into the sea.
"The president has told Gov. [Bobby] Jindal and others, you can't sit here and tell me, we can't trust BP to do anything, but we're going to take their word for it on the four permits that they had drilling in deep water, even as we were dealing with BP's disaster in the Gulf. The president just wasn't willing to take that chance," press secretary Robert Gibbs said, adding that the administration had a "long discussion" about the decision because it knew there would be economic consequences.
That has left Republicans charging that the president is violating his own campaign promise to inject science back into major policy decisions.
"Candidate Obama said he wished to be guided by science, not by politics. The seven or eight engineers he requested from the National Academy of Engineering to review his plan have repudiated this moratorium," said Rep. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican.
As a slew of polls show a majority of Americans disapprove of the administration's handling of the spill, Mr. Obama has pulled out all the stops to get out from under the criticism, touring the Gulf for a fourth time this week and holding his first-ever speech to the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama emerged from his first meeting with BP executives having wrested agreements on setting up a $20 billion independent compensation fund for businesses whose livelihoods have been hurt by the spill as well as a commitment of $100 million that will go toward helping rig workers displaced by his moratorium. The company said it has also decided to suspend dividend payments to shareholders for the rest of the year.
"I'm absolutely confident BP will be able to meet its obligations to the Gulf Coast and to the American people," Mr. Obama said. "BP is a strong and viable company and it is in all our interests that it remains so. This is about accountability."
Briefly addressing reporters after the meeting, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg apologized to Americans for the spill and assured them: "We care about the small people."
On Tuesday, in the first Oval Office address of his presidency, Mr. Obama said he understood the hardship his drilling moratorium is causing, but "we need to know the facts before we allow deep-water drilling to continue."
The moratorium was one of several recommendations by Mr. Salazar, who said he had run a draft by a panel from the National Academy of Engineering.
But five of the seven panelists said in a letter that their draft didn't include the blanket moratorium and that the record shows deep-water drilling to be safe. They said the blanket ban is a bad decision.
"It will not measurably reduce risk further and it will have a lasting impact on the nation's economy which may be greater than that of the oil spill," the engineers said, urging Mr. Salazar "to overcome emotion with logic."
In another letter, they said Mr. Salazar "should be free to recommend whatever he thinks is correct, but he should not be free to use our names to justify his political decisions."
It's the sort of thing Mr. Obama, as a presidential candidate in 2008, said he would try to avoid, and he repeatedly blasted President George W. Bush for placing ideology above science.
Last year, in announcing a new science policy, the president again blasted Mr. Bush for forcing "a false choice between sound science and moral values," and vowed to let scientists do their work unfettered by a political agenda.
Gulf state lawmakers, though, said Mr. Obama has failed to follow the science in the case of the drilling moratorium.
"Clearly, President Obama is allowing politics to trump science," Mr. Cassidy said.
Asked why Mr. Obama isn't following the recommendations of the scientists, his top energy and environment aide said it's the prerogative of the administration, not the scientists, to make policy.
"Mr. Salazar made a decision to recommend a moratorium. That was a policy decision. What the experts were providing was their expert advice but not the policy decisions that were obviously under the purview of the secretary of the interior," said Carol Browner, director of the White House's office of energy and climate change policy.
Gulf-state lawmakers from both parties have urged Mr. Obama to reverse his decision, and warn that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost if the 33 rigs that were drilling in the Gulf at the time of the moratorium aren't restarted.
"The president ought not kick the people of Louisiana when we're down, and that's what the president's moratorium does," Rep. Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican, said at a bipartisan news conference called Tuesday to urge lifting of the ban.
Oil executives told a congressional panel this week that they are losing up to $1 million a day per rig that's left idle. They said they will have to move their drilling rigs from the Gulf to countries where they can drill.
"This stuff is too expensive to let it just sit around," said Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobile Corp.
Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he will force a vote on an upcoming spending bill to try to overturn the moratorium.
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