Last updated: May 28, 2010 12:33 am

Obama halts deepwater drilling in Gulf

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President Barack Obama ordered all 33 deepwater oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to halt drilling and extended a moratorium on new deepwater wells, as BP temporarily suspended its latest effort to contain the US’s biggest oil spill.

Declaring that BP was now operating under his administration’s orders, Mr Obama used a rare televised press conference to try to assert control over the “tragedy” in the Gulf, as public frustration over the five-week-long disaster reaches boiling point.


Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said on Thursday afternoon that the company had delayed its “top kill” operation to check pressure. However, it restarted the procedure again late last night in an attempt to stem what scientists have declared as officially the biggest spill in US waters in history. It should be known today whether the operation has worked.

Mr Obama, who promised to make sure BP paid “every dime” for the damage caused by the slick, attacked the “cosy and sometimes corrupt” relationship between regulators and the oil industry.

The administration accepted the resignation of Elizabeth Birnbaum as head of the Minerals Management Service, the drilling watchdog widely criticised for lax oversight and impropriety.

Under the sweeping new rules, Mr Obama said action on the 33 deepwater exploratory wells being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico would be suspended.

The existing hold on issuing new drilling permits would be extended for another six months and planned exploration off Alaska would be put on hold while a presidential commission conducted an investigation into the spill. The president also cancelled lease sales in the Gulf and off the Virginia coast.

The oil industry reacted with dismay, warning the moves would hit jobs and the economy.

Mr Obama, who will today travel to the Louisiana coast, said he too was “angry and frustrated”, as he tried to counter criticism that his administration had not done enough to stop the leak.

“I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure this thing is shut down,” the president told reporters. “Make no mistake: BP is operating at our direction. Every decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance,” he said.

But Tony Fratto, a press secretary to former president George W. Bush, said that Mr Obama had waited too long to take questions on the spill, which increased frustrations about a lack of accountability.

“He should not have let so much time pass between press conferences,” Mr Fratto said. “They needed to let some air out of the bubble.”

“They are pumping mud into the well bore, and as long as the mud is going down, the hydrocarbons are not going up,” said Admiral Thad Allen, the commander of the spill response.

BP’s shares rose almost 6 per cent in London on hopes that the attempt to halt the flow would be successful.

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