April 30, 2010 -- As some Democratic lawmakers call on President Obama to suspend his plans to expand offshore oil drilling, the White House today said that there will be no new domestic offshore drilling until the investigation into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is complete.
"All he has said is that he's not going to continue the moratorium on drilling but... no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here," White House senior adviser David Axelrod said on "Good Morning America" today, defending the administration's policy.
Axelrod said no new drilling in domestic areas will go forward until "there is an adequate review of what happened here and what is being proposed elsewhere."
As Gulf Coast residents brace for mounds of slick to hit their shores, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has seeped into the energy debate in Washington, D.C., and threatens to disrupt Obama's policy and the bipartisan energy legislation in the Senate.
Obama last month lifted a longtime ban on offshore drilling and oil and gas exploration, saying it was crucial to U.S. energy security. In a rare case of bipartisanship, the proposal won broad support from Republicans. But it angered environmentalists, who argued that offshore drilling won't help lower gas prices or reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil. Rather, it will adversely impact marine life and beaches.
The Senate energy and climate bill drafted jointly by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, also encouraged offshore oil drilling, a move aimed at attracting Republican support.
But now, with environmentalists and some lawmakers pointing to the Gulf of Mexico disaster and arguing that there is no truly safe offshore operation, the Obama administration and senators who drafted the bill could have a tougher time moving forward.
"The problem for the president and for the Congress in general is that they were already facing this very uphill climb because there was this really diverse disagreement about how to shape an effective energy bill or climate bill," said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Baker Institute Energy Forum at Rice University. "Now it all becomes much more complex."
The administration was hoping to build a broad coalition for an energy and climate bill, experts say, and this incident only complicates that matter.
"The administration, I think, has moved quite systematically to try to broaden and strengthen that coalition and this really, I think, substantially complicates what was already a very complicated job of building a broad enough coalition so there would be adequate support for climate change legislation," said Bill Galston, senior fellow at Brookings Institute and a former policy adviser to President Clinton. "This is sure going to slow things down."
The Deepwater Horizon exploration well, operated by BP Oil and owned by Transocean Ltd., exploded and started burning April 20. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that 5,000 barrels a day are leaking from the rig. Much of the sea life in the region is in danger and the beaches are likely to be heavily polluted as slick washes up to the shore.
Democratic lawmakers already are lining up against Obama's policy to expand offshore drilling and any bill that includes such measures. On Thursday, Democratic senators spent more time debating offshore drilling than the financial reform bill.
"I'm deeply concerned that the current five-year plan recently announced by the administration would allow oil drilling less than 5 miles from Cap May, New Jersey," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. "It is a wakeup call for all of us."
Menendez and Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, also a Democrat, are calling on the president to nix it altogether.
"Big oil has perpetuated a dangerous myth that coastline drilling is a completely safe endeavor, but accidents like this are a sober reminder just how far that is from the truth," the senators said in a joint statement Thursday.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wants to block Obama's offshore oil drilling plan while the Deep Water Horizon investigation is ongoing and called on him to ask "tough questions" of big oil companies.
"It's unclear whether any additional shut-off controls would have made a difference in this case," Nelson wrote in a letter to Obama Thursday. "But the questions about the practices of the oil industry raised in the wake of this still-unfolding incident require that you postpone indefinitely plans for expanded offshore oil drilling operations."
Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Threatens Obama's Offshore Oil Drilling Policy
Meanwhile, environmental groups are hoping that the incident will validate their opposition.
"There are grave environmental concerns which this horrific spill has highlighted," said Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposed the policy. "We need a time out on any action to go forward with new offshore drilling because this has obviously raised a bunch of questions. We need a full comprehensive independent investigation."
The White House has said it is too early to tell how the incident would impact the president's proposal, saying the policy is only the beginning.
"There will be ample opportunity for public input. There will be ample opportunity for congressional and governor input," Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said Thursday. "That is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process. ... We need to stay focused on the incident. We need to learn from the incident."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stressed that the president's decision was "the beginning of a longer process" that will take into account any new developments, including the oil spill from BP's well.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told reporters Thursday that he believes the fundamental practices of offshore drilling are safe and that this particular incident was highly unusual, but "everything is on the table."
Brown countered the idea that the spill would jeopardize the debate on the energy and climate bill.
"This will become part of the debate. That goes without saying," she said. "It doesn't mean we can't get the kind of energy legislation we need for this country."
Supporters of offshore oil and gas drilling say one incident doesn't mean the United States should completely do away with it altogether.
"We must continue to drill," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, said on the Senate floor Thursday, comparing the disaster in the Gulf to two previous incidents, the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island and also the Challenger space shuttle explosion.
"What we did not do is end the space program. We did not stop launching. We did not stop exploring," she said. "We have to find a way to make sure it never happens again, strengthen our resolve and ... continue to be the world leader."
Experts say what will really determine the impact of this incident is whether it was caused by human error or by structural or technological damage.
"Until we know how and why this happened, it is pretty hard to evaluate how serious this is," Jaffe said. "The answer to the question of what caused this accident is just critical because all these people who were in favor of [offshore] drilling need to know that answer before they can reevaluate their position. ... We can't have proper national debate until we know the answer."
High gasoline prices and reliance on foreign oil both encourage support for new drilling, recent polls have shown. A Pew poll last month found that nearly two-third of Americans, about 63 percent, favored more offshore drilling for oil and gas. A Fox News poll earlier this month found that 70 percent of registered voters supported an increase in offshore drilling.
But surveys from the time of the last major spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster of March 1989, show that environmental concerns also take a place at the table. In April 1989, the month after the Exxon Valdez spill, the percentage of people who favored "stronger regulations on where and how the oil companies drill for offshore oil and gas" jumped to 62 percent from 49 percent a year ago. By March 1990, 70 percent of those polled felt that way.
ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf and Gary Langer contributed to this report.