WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's announcement last week that he was suspending deepwater oil drilling permits gave hope to some that he was also putting a stake in a longer range proposal for more drilling near Florida.
"For all intents and purposes, bringing rigs closer to Florida's beaches appears to be dead," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
But even as he stood Tuesday with former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a longtime opponent of drilling, and vowed to punish those responsible for the gulf catastrophe, Obama signaled he wanted to make drilling safer, not prohibit it.
"We owe all those who've been harmed, as well as future generations, a full and vigorous accounting of the events that led to what has now become the worst oil spill in U.S. history," Obama said from the Rose Garden. "Only then can we be assured that deepwater drilling can take place safely. Only then can we accept further development of these resources as we transition to a clean energy economy."
Obama has never been a "drill, baby, drill" advocate, but his comments Tuesday underscored his position that oil should remain part of the overall energy mix while wind and solar and other clean energy sources are developed.
That belief led to his call on March 31 for opening up parts of the Atlantic, from Delaware to Central Florida, and for lifting a ban in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
The gulf moratorium was the result of a 2006 law that opened 8.3 million acres in the eastern gulf and allowed exploration 125 miles south of the Panhandle but prohibited drilling within 234 miles of the Tampa Bay area through 2022.
The new plan calls for drilling within 125 miles and opens up 25 million additional acres. The government says there are 3 billion barrels of oil considered available in the entire eastern Gulf of Mexico, and two-thirds are contained in part of gulf proposed for drilling. Lifting the moratorium would require congressional approval.
At the time, political momentum and public opinion was on the president's side. His overture to pro-drilling forces was largely interpreted as a way to gain Republican support for an energy and climate bill, now stalled in the Senate because of the spill.
Each day oil continues to gush from the BP well, momentum fades. Castor and other critics may be proven right in the long run.
"The White House needs to bag this ill-advised plan to expand drilling in new areas along the gulf coast," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
"Most other presidents since the 1980s have supported a moratorium on offshore drilling, in part, because we only have 3 percent of the world's oil," Nelson added in a statement. "That's not enough to put a dent in our dependence on foreign sources. And it's certainly not enough for us to risk ruining our coastal economies and environments."
Obama has insisted that no new drilling will occur until the cause of the spill is known and new regulations are in place to prevent future catastrophes — or at least stop a spill in a matter of days, not months as it could take in the gulf.
To that end he created a presidential study commission. The commission will be co-chaired by Graham and former Environmental Protection Agency director William Reilly.
Obama met with the men Tuesday then addressed reporters in the Rose Garden, pledging a forceful and thorough investigation of what he called "the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history."
"We have an obligation to investigate what went wrong and to determine what reforms are needed so that we never have to experience a crisis like this again," Obama said.
"If the laws on our books are insufficient to prevent such a spill, the laws must change. If oversight was inadequate to enforce these laws, oversight has to be reformed."
Obama kept the focus on BP and accountability rather than future drilling. But that looming question is a central mission of the commission, which will include five other members.
Graham, who long opposed drilling near Florida, said in an interview that he was going in without bias.
"I see myself as being a juror," he said. "We're going to try to approach this with a great degree of open-mindedness and open to the facts as they are developed and wherever they might lead."
So while it is certain the oil industry will face tougher requirements, a ban on offshore drilling is less clear. Opposition from Florida politicians is strong but not universal, and public opinion outside Florida has not yet totally soured on oil.
"Imposing a ban on offshore oil development would be a mistake of historic proportions," Mark J. Perry, a University of Michigan business professor and scholar for the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, wrote in a column published by McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
"Drilling for oil in the gulf is an opportunity we cannot afford to squander. Our energy security and economic growth depend on it."
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyspt on Twitter.