‘Top kill’ to block well on track as White House extends drill ban

Federal officials appeared optimistic Thursday that oil giant BP’s effort to cap its gushing Gulf of Mexico oil well is succeeding.

“They've been able to stabilize the wellhead, they're pumping mud down it. They've stopped the hydrocarbons from coming up," U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told the WWL First News radio station, according to several press accounts.

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BP is pumping heavy drilling muds into the damaged well a mile beneath the ocean surface to try to block the flow of oil, which has been gushing into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Reports on the early success of the “top kill” attempt come as the White House prepares to announce continued limits on new deepwater drilling.

The White House will extend a ban on new deepwater oil-and-gas drilling permits for six months and will also delay drilling in shallower Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast, administration officials said.

President Barack Obama plans to announce tougher offshore safety oversight at a news conference Thursday. The administration is also canceling a planned lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico and another off Virginia’s coast.

The White House decisions are the most powerful signs yet that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is scrambling offshore drilling policy.

They also represent a major political victory for environmentalists and some Democrats who have called for pulling back on new leasing and drilling in the wake of the BP spill.

Obama is continuing the ban on deepwater wells announced last month for another six months while a bipartisan independent commission he recently established probes the Gulf spill and needed safety and regulatory improvements.

Planned drilling in shallower waters off Alaska’s coast will also be delayed pending the commission review, a White House aide said. However, other shallow-water permits will now be able to proceed with new safety conditions, another official said.

Obama’s comments Thursday will follow his receipt of a more accelerated, 30-day Interior Department safety review that Obama ordered last month.
“The president will discuss the conclusions of the 30-day safety review on offshore drilling he directed [Interior] Secretary [Ken] Salazar to conduct,” an administration official said.

“He will announce standards to strengthen oversight of the industry and enhance safety, a first step in a process that the independent Presidential Commission will continue,” the official added.

The decisions appear to mean that Shell Oil will be unable to begin planned exploratory drilling this summer in shallow waters off Alaska’s northern coast.

The decision is a defeat for Shell, which has sought to reassure regulators that its plans could proceed safely.

The company, in a letter to Interior Department regulators this month, touted blowout prevention safeguards and said it has “unprecedented” response plans in the event of any spills.

Environmentalists and liberal Democrats have renewed efforts to block the Alaska drilling after the Gulf of Mexico spill, alleging it will imperil sensitive whales and other species.

But Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who supports offshore development, bashed the decision to delay the Alaska drilling.

“I am frustrated that this decision by the Obama administration to halt offshore development for a year will cause more delays and higher costs for domestic oil and gas production to meet the nation’s energy needs,” he said in a prepared statement.

The Obama administration had already suspended planning for a lease sale that was slated for tracts 50 miles off Virginia’s coast in the 2011-2012 timeframe. Now that sale is canceled entirely “due to environmental concerns and concerns raised by the Defense Department,” the White House official said.

Democrats from Maryland and New Jersey have pressed for the sale’s cancellation.