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Obama won't back off drilling plans, but pledges safeguards

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday appeared unwilling to scrap plans to expand oil and gas exploration, but promised that the administration will carefully study what mistakes led to the explosion of an oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he had dispatched a team of Justice Department prosecutors to the Gulf Coast to monitor the unfolding environmental disaster and determine whether any laws were broken in the way British Petroleum operated the rig or responded to the disaster. In addition, a House subcommittee asked the oil services company Halliburton to provide documents regarding the company's work at the rig.

"The British Petroleum oil spill has already cost lives and created a major environmental incident,” Holder said in a statement. “The Justice Department stands ready to make available every resource at our disposal to vigorously enforce the laws that protect the people who work and reside near the Gulf, the wildlife, the environment and the American taxpayers.”

The request to Haliburton by the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations came in response to a Wall Street Journal story Friday that suggested the initial explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon on April 20 may have been a result of incorrect application of cement used to plug gaps between the well pipe and the hole drilled into the seabed. When the cement does not fill the gaps, gas and oil can leak out and ignite. Eleven people were reported missing and presumed dead after the rig exploded. The Deepwater Horizon sank April 22.

In the week since, an estimated 5,000 42-gallon barrels of crude oil have spewed into the Gulf each day from at least three leaks in the well, creating a slick that covers more than 4,000 square miles. Thousands of people have been mustered in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to repel the oil as it approaches the shoreline, but environmentalists say the spill already has damaged sea life.

Attorneys representing the owner of a Pass Christian, Miss., seafood company filed a class-action lawsuit Friday seeking not less than $5 million in economic and compensatory damages from BP. The president of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport predicted that the oil spill will be devastating.

“People don’t understand the magnitude of this. It is hard to comprehend,” said Dr. Moby Solangi, who's studied the impact of crude oil on the environment since the 1970s.

At the Mississippi State Port in Gulfport, U.S. Navy sailors loaded oil containment booms onto the offshore service vessel John Coghil in preparation for deploying them to the west of Ship Island in hopes of preventing the oil slick from coming ashore.

The oil was expected to begin nearing Mississippi's coastline later Friday and ports were taking steps to limit its impact. Long Beach, Miss., closed its harbor to small craft.

“We don’t know what we’re looking for except a mess,” said harbor security officer Joe Moore.

New Jersey's two U.S. senators, both Democrats, joined two New Jersey members of Congress and much of Florida's congressional delegation in demanding that Obama reverse his announced plans to open up the East Coast of the United States to oil drilling.

In a letter to Obama, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Frank Lautenberg and Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt said the Gulf oil spill is "only the latest example of the real risk drilling poses to coastal communities and the economies they support."

The letter pointed out that drilling along the coast of Virginia would come within 100 miles of the Jersey Shore and that drilling off Delaware would place rigs within 10 miles of New Jersey.

“While we appreciate the White House’s announcement that no additional offshore drilling will be authorized until a full investigation of the accident is complete, we urge you to go further and reverse your decision on proposed new offshore oil and gas drilling for the outer continental shelf," the letter said. "This incident exposes the many deficiencies in worker safety, blow out avoidance technology, and oil spill clean-up plans for operations in the outer continental shelf. We simply are not prepared to make our pristine Jersey shoreline the next test case for the oil companies’ experiment in how to maximize profits and minimize regulations.”

Earlier, Obama told reporters in the White House Rose Garden that he had ordered Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to conduct a thorough review of the BP oil spill and report within a month on what additional technologies and precautions need to be in place to prevent such an accident in the future.

"We're going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards," Obama said. "I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security, but I've always said it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment."

Obama adviser David Axelrod told ABC earlier today no new authorizations for exploring or drilling would be approved right now, as the government investigates the accident that is spilling an estimated 5,000 barrels of crude per day into the gulf.

"We are fully prepared to meet our responsiblities to any and all affected communities." He wouldn't say when he'll visit the area personally. He's scheduled tomorrow to give a university commencement address in Michigan and be back in Washington in time for the White House Correspondents Association's annual dinner. The celebrity-draw is Washington's version of the Oscars, known informally as the "nerd prom."

(Talev reported from Washington, Fitzhugh, from Biloxi, Miss.)