Just weeks after he opened up new coastal areas to offshore drilling, President Obama reversed course Thursday and suspended or canceled drilling projects in the Gulf, the Atlantic and the Arctic, and said he takes responsibility for the government’s response in cleaning up the spill resulted from an explosion at a BP oil rig.
In his first extended press conference in nearly a year, Mr. Obama faced repeated questions about his administration’s response to the month-old oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and said he accepts ultimate “responsibility” for plugging the leak on the ocean floor.
But Mr. Obama also blamed the ecological catastrophe off the coast of Louisiana in large part on what he called “a scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them,” and said his administration already had been trying to clean up that agency, the Minerals Management Service.
MMS’ chief, Elizabeth Birnbaum, who was an Obama appointee, resigned her post Thursday just before Mr. Obama held the press conference to lay out his plans for the clean-up and the future of offshore drilling. Mr. Obama told reporters he was not sure whether Ms. Birnbaum resigned or had been asked to leave by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The president said the spill serves as a “wake-up call” that the country must move past drilling and embrace a clean- energy agenda, and he argued that despite his now-reversed overture to open up more drilling, he was never that fond of the idea.
“That’s part of the reason you never heard me say, ‘Drill, baby, drill,’” Mr. Obama told reporters in the East Room of the White House.
In response to a preliminary report on the spill by the Interior Department, Mr. Obama said he has decided to suspend the planned exploration of two locations off the coast of Alaska and cancel lease sales for locations in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia. In addition, he ordered a six-month extension of an existing moratorium on issuing new permits to drill deepwater wells and suspended action on 33 exploratory deepwater wells currently being drilled in the Gulf.
Mr. Obama said BP is operating at the government’s instruction as it tries to stop oil from spewing into the water, and the president assured Americans that he takes responsibility for the response to the crisis.
“In case you’re wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility,” he said. “It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen right away or the way I’d like it to happen. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to make mistakes. But there shouldn’t be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.”
The event marked Mr. Obama’s first formal press conference in the East Room since July.