WASHINGTON — Saying that he is “angry and frustrated” over theoil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama on Thursday ordered work to be suspended on exploratory drilling in the gulf and cancelled or deferred some future wells around the country, as the head of the agency regulating offshore drilling resigned under pressure.
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Addressing deepening public frustration and defending his handling of the five-week-old crisis, Mr. Obama acknowledged that his team had made several mistakes of judgment and approach, at one point even saying “I was wrong” to believe that oilcompanies were prepared for worst-case disasters as he moved forward with plans for expanded offshore drilling last month, before the disaster in the gulf, which was caused by an explosion on April 20 that destroyed a drilling rig leased by BP.
“In case you’re wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility,” Mr. Obama said at a rare White House news conference. “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. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen right away or the way I’d like it to happen. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to make any mistakes. But there shouldn’t be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged and I’m fully engaged.”
In response to questioning by reporters, Mr. Obama listed several areas where he or his administration had made mistakes. For one, he said his administration should have moved more aggressively to clean up what he called a cozy and corrupt relationship between regulators and industry, suggesting that the disaster might have been prevented if steps were taken sooner.
“Obviously they weren’t happening fast enough,” he said. “If they were happening fast enough, this might have been caught.”
But the president rejected criticism that he had not focused intently enough on the spill, now estimated to be the biggest in United States history, with millions of gallons of oil already released into the gulf. He said he thinks about the disaster every morning when he wakes up and every night when he goes to bed.
“Every day I see this leak continue, I am angry and frustrated as well,” the president told reporters in the East Room. He acknowledged that not every decision has been perfect and “we can always do better.” But he added: “Those who think we were either slow in our response or lacked urgency don’t know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred.”
Even his daughter, Malia, prods him on the matter, he said, recounting her popping her head into the bathroom while he was shaving in the morning to ask: “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”
The news conference came hours after the head of theMinerals Management Service, the agency that regulates offshore drilling, stepped down under pressure. S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, who took over as director of the agency last July, announced her resignation after being asked by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to relinquish her post, a government official said. While she might have stayed in the department in another position, she decided instead to resign, the official said.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama ordered the suspension of work on 33 exploratory wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico; a further six-month moratorium on new permits for deepwater oil and gas wells; a temporary halt to planned exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the coast of Alaska; the cancellation of a planned August lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico; and the cancellation of a proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia. Environmentalists who had opposed the Alaska and Virginia projects hailed the decisions.
Mr. Obama said further moves will be made to strengthen oversight of the drilling industry and enhance safety as a commission he is appointing opens its own six-month inquiry. The commission will be led by former Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, and by William K. Reilly, who was administrator of theEnvironmental Protection Agencyunder the first President Bush.
The moves to rein in drilling were a marked turnaround for Mr. Obama. Just a few weeks before the disaster on the gulf rig, known as the Deepwater Horizon, Mr. Obama proposed an expansion of offshore oil exploration as a response to the nation’s continuing need for new energy sources. But the policy change reflects the volatile and rapidly shifting political environment and Mr. Obama’s search for ways to demonstrate leadership as efforts to cope with the spill have seemed to falter.
Ms. Birnbaum’s resignation came after weeks of questions about whether she was up to the task of remaking the Minerals Management Service, an agency widely recognized as one of the most dysfunctional in government.
A Harvard-trained lawyer, she was described by friends as smart, tenacious, persistent and tough, but she has also been criticized for doing almost nothing to fix problems that have plagued the agency for more than a decade. She rarely visited the agency’s far-flung offices, and critics said the same agency managers who ignored or suppressed scientists’ concerns about safety and environmental risks in the past were still doing the same things under her.
by By PETER BAKER
Published: May 27, 2010
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