US President Barack Obama [official website] held a press conference [transcript] Thursday to announce new regulations to mitigate future oil spill disasters and the current plan of action for resolving the crisis created by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill [BBC backgrounder] in the Gulf of Mexico. The government will be suspending several offshore drilling activities including exploration of platform locations in Alaska, pending lease sales in the Gulf and Virginia, and the drilling of 33 deepwater exploratory wells in the Gulf. The government will also suspend the issuance of new permits to drill deepwater wells for six months. Obama stated that increased government regulation in the oil industry was necessary to alter the "cozy and sometimes corrupt" relationship it has built with federal regulators, specifically the Minerals Management Service (MMS) [official website]. The president admitted that even though Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar [official profile] has worked hard to reform the once notoriously corrupt MMS, more action is necessary to ameliorate that agency's malfeasance. Responsibilities of the MMS, which include not only providing permits, but also enforcing laws governing oil drilling, will be divided so individuals who permit the drilling will be different from those that are in charge of regulation and enforcement of safety standards. New permits from the MMS will also require a 30-day safety and environmental review. When asked about the resignation of MMS director Elizabeth Birnbaum [official profile], Obama stated that he was not yet aware of the circumstances under which Birnbaum resigned, but that he had given Salazar command of the "top-to-bottom" reformation of the MMS and trusted him to secure a staff which is "operating at the highest level and aren't making excuses when things break down, but are intent on fixing them." Obama closed the press conference by reiterating his commitment to tackle the crisis created by the oil spill.
The US government has struggled to gain political control over the oil spill ever since the severity of the spill and the lack of federal regulation of offshore drilling became public. Last week, Obama signed an executive order establishing an independent commission [JURIST report] to investigate offshore drilling and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling will be charged with identifying the causes of the BP oil spill and developing options to mitigate future occurrences through laws, regulations and agency reform. The Obama administration has also asked Salazar to conduct a "top-to-bottom" reform of the MMS [speech text] and ordered immediate inspections of all deep water operations in the Gulf. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a result of an oil well blowout that caused an explosion 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf. The amount of oil spilled into the Gulf is part of an ongoing debate but the resulting oil slick has covered at least 2,500 square miles and has now surpassed the Exxon Valdez [JURIST news archive] as the worst oil spill in US history. The White House is keeping a daily chronology of events [text].