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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Obama Decried, Then Used, Some Bush Drilling Policies

By NEIL KING JR. And KEITH JOHNSON

Less than four months after President Barack Obama took office, his new administration received a forceful warning about the dangers of offshore oil drilling.

The alarm was rung by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., which found that the government was unprepared for a major spill at sea, relying on an "irrational" environmental analysis of the risks of offshore drilling.

The April 2009 ruling stunned both the administration and the oil industry, and threatened to delay or cancel dozens of offshore projects in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite its pro-environment pledges, the Obama administration urged the court to revisit the decision. Politically, it needed to push ahead with conventional oil production while it expanded support for renewable energy.

Another reason: money. In its arguments to the court, the government said that the loss of royalties on the oil, estimated at almost $10 billion, "may have significant financial consequences for the federal government."

The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed its decision and allowed drilling in the Gulf to proceed—including on BP PLC's now-infamous Macondo well, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.

The Obama administration's actions in the court case exemplify the dilemma the White House faced in developing its energy policy. In his presidential campaign, President Obama criticized the Bush administration for being too soft on the oil industry and vowed to support greener energy forms.

But, once in office, President Obama ended up backing offshore drilling, bowing to political and fiscal realties, even as his administration's own scientists and Democratic lawmakers warned about its risks.

After the Macondo well blew out, sinking the Deepwater Horizon rig and causing a catastrophic spill, Mr. Obama said his administration should have been more vigilant in handling the oil industry. "More needed to be done, and more needs to be done" to tighten oversight, he told reporters recently.

Still, the administration defends its intervention in the court case, and says the ruling made it look more cautiously at whether to open new areas to offshore drilling. It pins blame on the Bush administration for pursuing a policy for deep-offshore drilling "that was driven by one principle: open everything," said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.

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