WASHINGTON The spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico could force the White House to rethink plans to increase offshore oil drilling, an essential component of a climate change bill it is working to push through Congress.
President Barack Obama could change his support for the plan, administration officials said on Thursday, depending on what was found to have caused the rig blast last week off Louisiana that left 11 workers missing, presumed dead, and led to the huge slick.
"Could that possibly change his viewpoint? Well, of course," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
"I think our focus right now is: one, the area, the spill; and two, also to ultimately determine the cause of it and see the impact that that ultimately may or may not have."
The White House sharply stepped up its response to the slick, which cast a shadow on the plan Obama proposed a month ago to encourage more offshore drilling in hopes of wooing Republicans to support a bill to tackle climate change.
Obama said on Thursday the administration would use every resource at its disposal, including the military, to stop the spill and help alleviate its impact.
The rig, owned by Transocean Ltd, was finishing a well for BP Plc about 40 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River when it exploded.
The spill fueled the anger of environmentalists who had criticized his administration's plan unveiled on March 31 to expand drilling after a decades-long moratorium on oil exploration in most of areas of the U.S. coast outside the Gulf of Mexico.
"Today's images of burning oil on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the tragic loss of life in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon provide a grim reminder of the risks posed by oil and gas exploration to the environmental and economic well-being of coastal regions, including the Arctic," William Eichbaum, vice president for Arctic and marine policy at the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement.
Their reaction could add to pressure on many of Obama's fellow Democrats not to support the bill.
Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson said he was filing legislation to temporarily ban the administration from expanding drilling, citing the risk of a potential "environmental and economic disaster."
The White House defended the program, promising to work closely with members of Congress and state governors in any process to open up new areas to offshore drilling and do everything possible to minimize risks.
Administration officials said they would push ahead with efforts to get the climate bill passed.
"Obviously this will become, I think, part of the debate; that goes without saying," said Carol Browner, Obama's top energy and climate adviser. "But I don't think it means that we can't get the kind of important energy legislation that we need."
The climate change bill, one of Obama's top priorities and a centerpiece of his energy policy, had already suffered a severe setback in recent days, when a fight over immigration derailed plans to unveil a compromise measure.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham)