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US President Barack Obama speaks with local fishermen about how they are affected by the BP oil spill after meeting with officials at Coast Guard Station Venice in Venice, Louisiana, May 2, 2010.SAUL LOEB/AFP / Getty Images

Just after he unveiled a controversial plan to end a moratorium on offshore oil drilling, President Barack Obama discounted criticism that allowing more development off American shores would invite catastrophe.

"Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," Mr. Obama insisted on April 2, two days after he announced he would allow drilling in the Atlantic Ocean from Virginia to Florida and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. "They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn't come from the oil rigs; they came from the refineries on shore."

Barely a month after that fateful utterance, the "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster" the President described Sunday on a visit to the Louisiana coast has left him with a series of political challenges that could make managing the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane look straightforward.

Unlike Katrina, which struck with vehemence and then subsided, the oil spill presents Mr. Obama with a disaster that is intensifying each day. The huge quantities of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico since an April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon are a problem to which there is no certain solution.

"This is considerably more complicated than a hurricane, when there is a simple before and after and the question is whether one can bring all the resources to bear swiftly and decisively," noted Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "In this case, they can bring all the resources to bear, but if there is a technological problem that can't be solved, the President may indeed look helpless."

The perceived failure of George W. Bush's administration to respond quickly and effectively to Katrina indelibly marked Mr. Bush's presidency. The Obama administration has so far escaped widespread criticism of its response to the rig disaster. The term "Obama's Katrina" is still being used with a question mark behind it, but that may not last.

"The federal government has launched and co-ordinated an all-hands-on-deck, relentless response to this crisis from day one," Mr. Obama insisted Sunday, his face bearing a rain-drenched sheen. "I'm going to spare no effort to respond to this crisis for as long as it continues, and we will spare no resource, whatever damages cost."

Demonstrating his effectiveness in dealing with the disaster is not the only political challenge the President is facing. His plans for expanded ocean drilling have also experienced a cold shower with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Lifting an almost three-decade moratorium on offshore exploration in the Outer Continental Shelf was part of a delicately concocted compromise aimed to rally Republican support for climate change legislation.

Even before the disaster, Mr. Obama was taking a calculated political risk in announcing plans for offshore drilling in new areas, which requires congressional approval.

He had hoped that criticism from environmentalists and grassroots Democrats would be muted by promises of billions of dollars for "clean" energy and cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

On Friday, however, six Democratic senators representing four East Coast states called on the President to "reconsider" his decision and keep the moratorium in place.

Expanded drilling in the Atlantic "presents an unacceptable risk to our coastal areas, fisheries, critical habitat, marine life, recreation, tourism and other industries, especially given the relatively paltry reward in terms of potentially recoverable oil and gas reserves," they said.

So far, the President has not backed down. Though the administration has slapped a ban on new offshore leases pending an investigation into the Deepwater Horizon blast, the activities of dozens of rigs currently operating in the western part of the Gulf of Mexico are unaffected.

"I continue to believe that domestic oil exploration is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security, but I've always said that it must be done responsibly, for the safety of our workers and our environment," Mr. Obama said on Friday.

Republicans who have been pushing the President to lift the moratorium are mostly unbowed by the oil slick in the Gulf.

"It is a setback," conceded Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, Sunday. But he added that a failure to expand U.S. oil supplies from offshore wells would only increase the country's dependence on foreigners in the two decades it might take to develop alternative energy sources. The United States consumes 12 billion barrels of oil per day, two-thirds of it imported.

"Unless we want $14-a-gallon gasoline and tankers bringing oil from Saudi Arabia, which has been responsible for 99 per cent of the oil spills in history, we're going to have to find a way to drill safely in the Gulf of Mexico," Mr. Alexander said.





But each day the oil leak in the Gulf goes uncapped increases the likelihood that Mr. Obama will have to shelve plans to lift the moratorium - and with them his hope of reaching a bargain on climate change legislation.