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Obama targets drilling loophole

Environmental reviews bypassed, president asserts

WASHINGTON – President Barack 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.”

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.

The announcement came amid reports that the Minerals Management Service, an Interior Department agency, had exempted hundreds of offshore drilling plans from filing environmental impact statements over the years, including the one for BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20.

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.”

BP engineers, who have struggled to control the gushing leak for the past three weeks, planned to launch a new attempt overnight Friday. Remote-controlled robots operating at the well head would insert a 6-inch-diameter vacuum tube into the leaking, 21-inch pipe and funnel the oil to a tanker at the surface of the water.

The riser insertion, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles acknowledged, “is a new idea. But the concept is simple. You take a piece of pipe with a rubber sealing device and push it in as far as possible to capture the oil, and not the water.”

If that doesn’t work, which will be known “in a day or two,” he said, BP will try using a “Top Hat,” a two-ton containment dome that has been lowered onto the seafloor, and could be placed over the leaking pipe to contain the oil and funnel it to the surface ship.

U.S Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, sought to dampen expectations. “This is a leak mitigation effort,” he said. “It’s not intended to completely capture all the oil that’s leaking out of there, but it should substantially reduce it if it’s successful,” he said.

An earlier effort to lower a larger dome over the leak failed.

So far, the spill, which occurred 48 miles off the Louisiana coast, has remained largely offshore, although a scattering of tar balls, up to 8 inches in diameter, have washed up on the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Despite calls from some members of Congress to halt offshore drilling, Obama did not back off his earlier push to expand development. “Domestic oil drilling continues to be one part of an overall energy strategy,” he said. But it is essential, he added, that “every necessary safeguard and protection” be put in place.

The administration plans to ask lawmakers to eliminate an industry-friendly deadline, enacted by Congress, that forces the Minerals Management Service to act on exploration plans submitted by oil companies within 30 days. Changing it to 90 days would allow more time for environmental analysis, according to Obama officials.

Obama’s forceful statements seem unlikely to assuage critics. Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.Va., sent a letter to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality on Friday, asking for all documents related to the “categorical exclusion” which allowed the Deepwater Horizon rig to start drilling without a detailed environmental review.

On Friday, the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, sent Interior Secretary Ken Salazar a formal notice that it will file suit against him for ignoring laws to protect whales and other marine mammals and endangered species in granting drilling permits.

“Under Salazar’s watch, the Department of Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice area,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the center. It charged that Salazar’s department has approved three lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys and 300 drilling operations without permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Interior Department responded that it was “reviewing” the issue of whether the Marine Management Service allowed BP and other oil companies to drill without the required permits.


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