The first time President Obama announced a plan to expand off-shore oil and gas drilling, it didn’t go so well.

On March 30, 2010, Obama proposed opening vast expanses of the Atlantic coastline, the north coast of Alaska, and the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling. Less than three weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, flooding the surrounding sea with 200 million gallons of oil and creating the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

But now that the ensuing drilling moratorium has been lifted, average gas prices are close to four dollars per gallon, and Republicans are once again hollering “drill, baby, drill,” Obama has decided that it’s time to renew his push for more oil production off American shores.

In his weekly radio address Saturday, Obama called for increased “safe and responsible” offshore drilling. He outlined plans to speed the leasing process in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, extend all leases in the Gulf of Mexico so companies can continue to implement new safety measures, and fast-track testing of previously untouched waters off the Atlantic coast and eastern Gulf of Mexico.

This new approach, to the relief of some environmentalists, stops short of a full return to the president’s March 2010 policy. For example, the plan only calls for increased testing of Atlantic waters in order to see if it would be “safe and commercially viable” to drill. “If they had gone back to March [2010], they’d be saying ‘we’re opening all this stuff,’” said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can live with this. The issue is what are the details and what happens next.

“This is basically [the White House] saying ‘we’re not anti-drilling, but we’re going to be careful,’” Goldston added. “We’re at a transitional moment. The question is what happens after that transition.”           

Safety of any ongoing offshore drilling remains an area of paramount concern. Obama said that “[the Deepwater] disaster helped us put in place smarter standards of safety and responsibility,” and there some promising developments. On Saturday Obama also announced the formation of a new high-level working group to oversee the Arctic drilling projects to make sure they “meet health, safety and environmental standards,” something Goldston praised.

But serious safety questions still linger, as was underscored this week by William Reilly, co-chairman of the National Oil Spill Commission. Speaking at an event in Washington yesterday, Reilly criticized the lack of progress on implementing the commission’s recommendations on how to avert another disaster. In the year since Deepwater Horizon, 150 offshore drilling safety bills have been introduced in Congress—but not a single measure passed, including any that would codify the commission’s recommendations.

Reilly also said the administration’s tough stance against Cuba further hampered safety efforts off the Florida coast. Cuba is planning to drill 16 oil and gas wells, some of which would be located only 50 miles from Key West, FL. The Russian company Gazprom has a contract for some of the work, and Reilly said he believes the company has never drilled an oil well before.

He attempted to contact the Cuban government to discuss safety measures, as he has already done with other countries like Mexico and Russia. But Reilly said at the event he was “wrist-slapped” by the State Department for having contact with the Cuban government, with which there have been no U.S. relations since 1961, and was not able to discuss his concerns with Cuban officials.

Also, as we noted last month, fundamental problems remain in the design of most “blowout preventers,” which are intended to stop the flow of oil from a deepwater rig in the event of an explosion.

The blowout preventers currently being used are the same as those that failed on Deepwater Horizon. The Senate failed to pass a bill last summer that would mandate backup design elements, and the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEMRE) similarly declined to mandate them “because of the time and costs associated with retrofitting the entire industry’s inventory.”

As offshore drilling presses on at Obama’s behest, even if at a slower pace than plotted last year, oil industry money will continue inhibit any serious safety reforms. In 2010 the oil and gas industry spent more than $146 million to lobby the federal government and donated $28 million to federal candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

There’s no doubt this money contributed to the Congressional gridlock on new safety rules, and it helps explain the recent spate of Republican bills in the House of Representatives that call for dramatic expansions of domestic drilling as well as a simultaneous weakening of the safety regulations that do exist.

There is one new entity regulating offshore oil drilling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster—the Center for Offshore Safety—but in a perverse yet telling twist, the center is completely owned and operated by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group for 470 oil and gas companies.

Needless to say API is not the best arbiter of safe drilling practices. In it’s final report, the oil spill commission indicted API as “compromised by its role as the industry’s principal lobbyist and public policy advocate,” and noted “API regularly resists agency rulemakings that government regulators believe would make those operations safer.” With the foxes watching the henhouse, if Obama doesn’t push harder on increased safety regulations, reality could once again spill all over his drilling plans. 

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