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Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Threatens Obama's Offshore Oil Drilling Policy

Meanwhile, environmental groups are hoping that the incident will validate their opposition.

Photo: Will Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Jeopardize Energy Bill,  Obama's Offshore Drilling Policy? Experts Say Obama's Policy, Senate  Energy Bill, Could Face an Uphill Battle
A blue whale exhales as it passes in front of an oil platform in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of... Expand
(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

"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.

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