WASHINGTON (AP)— President Barack Obama on Friday, in a largely symbolic gesture, promised that no new offshore oil drilling leases will be issued unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent a repeat of the explosion that unleashed the massive spill threatening the Gulf Coast.
The assurance had no immediate impact because no new leases are scheduled for the coming months. But the White House hopes to address slipping support in Congress, and among environmentalists, for Obama's planned expansion of offshore drilling.
Obama ordered Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to report within 30 days on what new technologies are needed to tighten safeguards against oil spills from deep water drilling rigs.
"We are going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards," said Obama at a White House Rose Garden event.
The president sought to reassure the jittery Gulf Coast that Washington is on top of the mounting oil spill crisis, saying people's livelihoods and a region's ecology are at stake.
His declaration on future lease sales is not expected to have any immediate impact.
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said no oil production is being halted and there are no new drilling lease sales in the pipeline for the 30-day period Salazar has to get the report back to Obama. Oil rigs and platforms currently operating in the Gulf are being inspected by the Interior Department.
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Interior has two lease sales scheduled for Gulf waters later this year and four more in the Gulf and off Alaska in 2011. The first offshore leases under an expanded drilling plan announced by Obama a month ago would be issued for waters off the Virginia coast in 2012 at the earliest.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday that he wouldn't rule out changes to Obama's offshore drilling plan, pending the results of Salazar's report.
It's still unclear what caused the explosion on the BP rig more than 40 miles off the Louisiana coast.
But foreshadowing the possible legal fallout from the increasingly menacing oil spill, the Justice Department said Friday it was sending a team of attorneys to New Orleans to meet with the U.S. attorney and response teams and to monitor the spill.
"The British Petroleum oil spill has already cost lives and created a major environmental incident," Attorney General Holder said in a statement. "The Justice Department stands ready to make available every resource at our disposal to vigorously enforce the laws that protect the people who work and reside near the Gulf, the wildlife, the environment and the American taxpayers."
Several civil suits already have been filed by private lawyers in the Gulf region.
Government officials said the blown-out well 40 miles offshore is spewing five times as much oil into the water as originally estimated – about 5,000 barrels, or 200,000 gallons, a day. The oil slick could become the nation's worst environmental disaster in decades, threatening hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, one of the world's richest seafood grounds.
In his remarks Friday, Obama cited a series of federal interventions in recent days, all designed to blunt the oil spill's impact and put people at ease.
"Let me be clear: I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security," Obama said. "But I've always said that it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment."
Obama said that oil company BP ultimately is responsible for the crisis, but that the federal government is fully prepared to meet its responsibilities to communities.
Gibbs wouldn't say whether the White House has confidence in BP's handling of the incident, only telling reporters Friday that the government "has had oversight over this the entire time."
Earlier, a top adviser to Obama said no new oil drilling will be authorized until authorities learn what caused the explosion.
David Axelrod also defended the administration's response to the April 20 accident, saying "we had the Coast Guard in almost immediately."
He deflected comparisons with the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, telling ABC's "Good Morning America" that such speculation "is always the case in Washington whenever something like this happens."
Congress in 2008 refused to continue a ban on drilling in most offshore waters outside the western Gulf of Mexico. A month ago, Obama said he was ready to expand drilling in some parts of the central and south Atlantic and eastern Gulf areas. But Axelrod said Friday "no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what has happened here."
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