Obama: Feds in charge of oil disaster response

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama moved aggressively to show his government is in charge of the Gulf oil spill on Thursday, calling the spill an “unprecedented disaster” and blasting a “scandalously close relationship” between oil companies and regulators.

“The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort,” Mr. Obama told a news conference. He was responding to criticism that his administration had been slow to act and had left BP in charge of plugging the leak.

Mr. Obama said many critics failed to realize “this has been our highest priority.”

He conceded that “people are going to be frustrated until it stops.”

Mr. Obama announced a series of new steps to deal with the aftermath of the spill, including continuing a moratorium on drilling permits for six months.

He also said he was suspending planned exploration drilling off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and on 33 wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

The president, speaking to reporters in the East Room of the White House, spoke as oil giant BP pumped mudlike heavy drilling oil into the well in hopes of stopping the flow.

He said while the “top kill” procedure was an example of his administration’s willingness to try “any reasonable strategy” to stop the gusher, the process “offers no guarantee of success.”

Over and over, the president sought to counter criticism that the administration was giving too much leeway to BP.

“Make no mistake, BP is operating at our direction,” he said.

“We will demand they pay every dime they owe for the damage they’ve done and the painful losses they’ve caused,” Obama said.

He denounced what he called “the oil industry’s cozy and sometimes corrupt” ties with government regulators.

He spoke shortly after the head of the troubled agency that oversees offshore drilling resigned under pressure. The departure of Minerals Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum was announced just before Mr. Obama’s news conference began.

Asked about inevitable comparisons between his administration’s handling of the disaster with his predecessor’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mr. Obama said: “I’ll leave it to you guys to make those comparisons… . What I’m thinking about is how do you solve the problem?”

“I’m confident people are going to look back and say this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis,” he added.

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