Stung by accusations of a sellout to the oil industry, President Obama has ordered a sweeping review of all the environmental procedures in place for oil exploration.
As efforts to contain the remorselessly spreading oil spill from the wrecked rig Deepwater Horizon cntinue, Obama Friday he was ordering a new examination of the environmental procedures for oil and gas exploration and development, along with inspections of all deep-water operations in the gulf. No plans to drill will go forward at least until his initial 30-day review is complete, the president said.
He is directing the Interior Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to review how regulators apply the nation's signature environmental statute to offshore drilling proposals, according to administration officials.
As part of it, officials will examine how the Minerals Management Service, the branch of Interior that oversees oil and gas development on federal lands and offshore, applies the National Environmental Policy Act when reviewing plans to drill offshore.
In particular, the move appears to target the service's common practice of bypassing a lengthy analysis of drilling proposals' environmental impact. Instead, officials have frequently waived that review after deciding proposals qualify for so-called "categorical exclusions," because the drilling plans do not pose a significant risk of environmental harm.
The BP drilling plan that included the Deepwater Horizon received such an exclusion, along with hundreds of others.
BP and related donors contributed half a million dollars to federal candidates during the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with Obama as the top single recipient.
Desperately trying to shake off the inevitable inferences over his conduct, President Obama on Friday assailed the "cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill" and declared that permits would no longer be "issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies."
"That cannot and will not happen anymore. To borrow an old phrase, we will trust, but we will verify."
He said his administration would "close the loophole that has allowed oil companies to bypass environmental reviews" and would launch a new inquiry into "environmental procedures" for oil and gas exploration and development.
In a brief Rose Garden statement, the president reserved his harshest words for the three companies involved in the accident. Their testimony before Congress this week was "a ridiculous spectacle," Obama said. "You had executives of BP, Transocean and Halliburton falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else.
"The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't," he said. Obama said the federal government also was taking responsibility for its role. "For too long, for a decade or more, there's been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill," Obama said. "It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies.
As a result, Obama said, the Mineral Management Service will be restructured, with the part of the agency that permits oil and gas drilling and collects royalties separated from the part of the agency in charge of inspecting the safety of oil rigs and platforms and enforcing the law. "That way, there's no conflict of interest, real or perceived," Obama said.
In a related development, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed off to fishing another part of the Gulf of Mexico over which the federal government has jurisdiction. NOAA has now closed 19,377 square miles (50,187 square kilometers), which is 8 percent of the Gulf area within 200 miles of the coast, called an exclusive economic zone. The closed area a week earlier had been 4.5 percent.