Obama set to visit Gulf on Sunday for spill update

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — President Barack Obama made plans to visit the Gulf Coast on Sunday for a firsthand update on the worst U.S. oil spill in decades and Cabinet members leading the administration’s response booked a heavy round of talk show appearances

The White House announced Obama’s trip as he headed to the University of Michigan to give the commencement address on Saturday. Word about where the president would go was expected later Saturday. He intended to take a smaller than usual entourage.

The underwater spill remained unstopped and impossible to measure, raising fears it could be pouring more oil into the Gulf than estimated. The Coast Guard estimates that at least 1.6 million gallons of oil have spilled since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers on an offshore rig. In the Exxon Valdez disaster, an oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons off Alaska’s shores in 1989.

Obama made no comment about the situation when he boarded a helicopter at the White House for the short flight to Andrews Air Force Base or when he walked on the tarmac to Air Force One. He did not speak to reporters on the flight to Detroit.

Obama has said his administration will do all that it can to battle the spill, which came from a BP exploratory rig. The spill is already the worst in U.S. waters in decades.

Obama has relied on reports from agency chiefs and Coast Guard officials since the magnitude of the spill became clear late Wednesday. Aides report he’s been getting regular updates.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano scheduled appearances across the Sunday morning talk shows to detail the administration’s efforts in dealing with the environmental disaster. Joining them was the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Thad Allen.

Deputy press secretary Bill Burton said Obama got another update early Saturday before flying to Ann Arbor. On Friday, Obama ordered Salazar to conduct an immediate review of rig safety in the Gulf and report back within 30 days if any new technologies are needed.

He promised that no new offshore oil drilling leases will be issued unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent a repeat of the explosion that unleashed the massive spill.

“We are going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards,” Obama said.

The step, however, was largely symbolic. No such leases are likely to come up for approval for several months, and the review was not expected to interrupt current drilling operations.

The spill came just weeks after Obama announced plans to open up large areas of the Eastern Seaboard and a part of the Gulf for possible future oil drilling. And it’s led to increasing calls to reconsider that initiative by environmentalists and coastal state lawmakers.

In his remarks Friday, Obama said he continues “to believe that domestic oil production 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.”