- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Political winds swirled around President Obama’s plan to expand exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas along the outer U.S. continental shelf as a calm sea Tuesday helped crews trying to clean up and contain the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Senate Democrats already skeptical of offshore drilling attacked Mr. Obama’s plan, which many Republicans support, and threatened to used it to derail climate-change legislation that contains elements of it.

“The president’s proposal for offshore drilling is dead on arrival,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, who took aim at the climate bill.

“If offshore drilling off the coast of the continental United States is part of it, this legislation is not going anywhere. If I have to do a filibuster, which I had to five years ago … I will do so again,” he said.

While the White House and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill and in coastal states said the spill requires a review to ensure any future offshore drilling is done safely, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other Republicans cautioned against a “knee jerk” reaction.

“The recent oil spill off the Gulf coast serves as a stern reminder for states to understand all economic benefits and environmental risks of offshore drilling,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican. “Any new oil and gas development must also include revenue-sharing agreements between impacted and regional states.”

On March 31, Mr. Obama calling for expanded drilling from Delaware to Florida, along Florida’s Gulf Coast and on the north coast of Alaska, starting with a lease sale off the Virginia coast in 2012. It would end a ban Mr. Nelson helped put in place five years ago.

Crews continued their cleanup and containment efforts as the light winds Tuesday moved the 2,000-square-mile slick slowly into coastal waters. Officials say capping the underwater gusher at a BP rig, which is spewing more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil daily, could take another week. The slick is moving toward Gulf beaches from Louisiana to Florida and threatens the area’s vibrant seafood industry.

BP’s chief executive officer said Tuesday that a containment dome designed to cover the oil leak will be on the seabed Thursday, and will be hooked up to a drill ship over the weekend.

“This has never been done in 5,000 feet of water. … So we’ll undoubtedly encounter some issues as we go through that process,” CEO Tony Hayward told reporters at a news conference. “But if that was a good outcome, then you would have the principal leak contained by the early part of next week. But there’s no guarantees.”

A Coast Guard official said forecasts showed the oil wasn’t expected to come ashore for at least three more days and that the calm weather was allowing cleanup crews to put out more containment equipment and repair some of the booms that were damaged in the rough weather. They also hope to again try to burn some of the oil on the water’s surface.

The administration has said the president does not intend to extend the ban but will wait for a review of the spill before going forward. The White House also has vowed to hold BP accountable.

“We’re all going to back off from offshore drilling until we get a better handle of how we can make it safe,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

But Mr. Nelson and New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, Democrats, want action now. They’re introducing legislation to increase oil companies’ financial liability beyond clean-up costs as a result of a spill. The bill calls for increasing the cap from $75 million to $10 billion for damages such as lost revenue in the fishing and tourism industries.

Mr. Menendez is among the most outspoken critics of Mr. Obama’s plan and the conservatives who support it.

“We have been saying for some time … against the ‘drill, baby, drill’ crowd that this is just not in the interest of the United States,” he said days after the April 20 explosion of the BP-leased oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and has sent 200,000 gallons of crude oil daily toward Gulf beaches from Louisiana to Florida.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has withdrawn his support for expanded oil drilling off his coast, saying he will find another way to help close the state’s $20 billion budget deficit.

California was not included in the recent Obama plan. But Mr. Schwarzenegger wanted to drill off Santa Barbara County, despite Democrat opposition.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

• Joseph Weber can be reached at jweber@washingtontimes.com.old.

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