Oil spill may alter Obama’s drilling plans

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could trigger changes in President Obama’s recently announced plans to open new coastal areas for offshore drilling, administration officials said Thursday.

Last month, Obama unveiled a draft plan designed to open the way to new drilling in the Atlantic, off Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. But on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and other administration officials, including top energy and climate advisor Carol Browner, said the plan was entering a public comment phase and could undergo modifications as a result of the oil spill and possible public reaction to it.

Officials said the same applies to the floundering Senate climate bill, which, as drafted, would expand drilling. The provision was inserted in hopes of wooing Republican support, but it has upset many Democrats representing coastal regions.

Gibbs said it would be impossible to say what effect the spill would have on the drilling plan until investigators determined the cause of the explosion and subsequent leak.

But, Browner said, “this will become part of the debate” over drilling. “That goes without saying.”

The statements were likely to upset Republicans, many of whom criticized Obama’s drilling plan as too little, but please environmentalists, who opposed the plan.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked Obama in a letter Thursday to halt the drilling of any new wells offshore until the cause of the spill is understood. He said he would introduce a bill to block the administration’s increased offshore drilling plans.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, formally summoned the heads of the nation’s five largest oil companies to appear before the committee soon.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) continues to support expanded offshore drilling. “I think this is an isolated event, especially considering the environmental record — a very positive one — of hundreds of rigs on the coast,” he said in an interview off the House chamber.

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.