Obama acts to avert repeat of oil spill disaster

US President Barack Obama today directed that no new offshore oil drilling leases can be issued unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent a repeat of the explosion that unleashed the massive spill threatening the Gulf Coast with major environmental damage.

US President Barack Obama today directed that no new offshore oil drilling leases can be issued unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent a repeat of the explosion that unleashed the massive spill threatening the Gulf Coast with major environmental damage.

Mr 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 making sure any leases going forward have those safeguards,” said Mr 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 is not expected to have any immediate impact, however. Under the expanded leasing plan that Mr Obama announced a month ago, the first offshore leases would be issued off the Virginia coast in 2012 at the earliest.

It’s still unclear what caused the explosion on the BP rig more than 40 miles off the Louisiana coast.

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 a day.

The oil slick could become the worst US 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.

Tonight, the US Defence Department approved the use of two Air Force planes to drop chemicals on the spill.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Defence Secretary Robert Gates approved the operation by two C-130 Hercules cargo planes.

The planes were sent to the southern state of Mississippi yesterday to await orders. A number of civilian planes have already been doing the same job – using chemicals to try to break up the oil.

In his remarks today, Mr Obama cited a series of federal interventions in recent days, all designed to blunt the oil spill’s impact and put people at ease.

He also said he expected a report later today from federal officials he dispatched to the Gulf Coast region to review what caused the oil rig explosion.

He added that deep-water rigs in the Gulf will undergo new inspections.

“Let me be clear: I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security,” Mr Obama said. “But I’ve always said that it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment.”

Mr Obama said oil company BP ultimately is responsible for the crisis, but that the federal government is fully prepared to meet its responsibilities to communities.

Earlier, a top adviser to Mr Obama said no new oil drilling will be authorised 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 television’s Good Morning America that such speculation “is always the case in Washington whenever something like this happens”.

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