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Obama suspends new Virginia offshore drilling bid

By Steve Hargreaves, Senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Obama administration took the first concrete steps Thursday to make good on its pledge to halt new offshore drilling projects, suspending the approval process for new wells off of the Virginia coast.

The Minerals Management Service, part of the Interior Department and the agency charged with issuing new drilling leases, had scheduled three public hearings in Virginia this month to solicit public comment about new wells off of the state's coast.

The agency said on Thursday that these meetings are now suspended indefinitely, pending a government safety review of offshore drilling.

The process was halted "so that information from the ongoing review of outer continental shelf safety issues that the President has directed can be appropriately considered in those meetings," according to an MMS statement.

Last week president Obama said all new offshore drilling will be halted until the cause of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is identified.

But leases for new oil wells were not expected for at least a year, whereas the investigation should wrap up in months.

Thursday's announcement is the first time the Obama administration has actually put the brakes on a plan to open up more areas of the country to offshore drilling.

Obama has supported increased drilling in the past, and just a month ago opened up a few new areas for drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off the East Coast and in Alaska.

That was the first offering of new leases in the Atlantic since 2008, when a decades-old ban on new offshore drilling expired.

Obama has emphasized he still supports increased domestic oil production, but says it needs to be done safely.

The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where an oil rig exploded last week, continues to unfold. Eleven of the rig's workers are presumed dead, and oil is still leaking into the Gulf in what could be one of the worst spills in U.S. history.

The ban on offshore drilling and its subsequent lifting refer only to new drilling. A big swath of the Gulf of Mexico has always been open to oil production, and produces nearly a third of the country's crude.  To top of page

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