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Interior Secretary Halts Offshore Drilling Leases

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a halt Thursday to all new offshore drilling permits nationwide until at least the end of the month, stepping up scrutiny of the entire industry amid a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Salazar spoke to reporters Thursday outside BP's Houston crisis center and said lifting the moratorium on new permits will depend on the outcome of a federal investigation over the Gulf spill and the recommendations to be delivered to the president May 28.

He said until then, "We are putting things on hold relative to the granting of permits for well construction on the outer continental shelf."

Salazar also said he believed BP's "life was very much on the line here," and that he believed the company was taking the

situation "very seriously."

The ramifications of his order extend beyond the Gulf and affect permits pending in Alaska as well.

"They will not get those permits until we have an opportunity to complete this review," he said. "We will see what lessons we learn between now and then and at that point will make a decision about how we're going to move forward."

Salazar said there were "many working theories" about what caused the blowout.

"The reality is all we know is there was a huge malfunction," he said. "That is why we're dealing with a very significant

national incident. The causes of it, that's what we'll get through our investigations."

He said this was his second trip in a week to the BP operation in Houston -- "to make sure" BP Plc is doing everything it can to respond to the slick.

Earlier, the Interior Department suspended planned lease sales for oil drilling off the coast of Virginia.

The department had scheduled public meetings on a plan to sell the leases two years from now but postponed those meetings owing to concerns about the safety of offshore drilling following the deadly oil rig explosiontwo weeks ago, which continues to pour oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

A department spokeswoman said the Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore leases and drilling, needs to focus on the Gulf incident.

President Obama in March announced the opening of new coastal areas for oil and gas exploration that until now had been off-limits to drilling.

The Interior Department had planned to hold a lease sale for areas 50 miles off the Virginia coast. Three public meetings were scheduled for this month, and comments from the public were solicited.

The department's move came after Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said in an interview Wednesday that he remained committed to making his state the first on the East Coast to drill offshore for oil and gas.

McDonnell said he wants answers from the industry on the Gulf spill before Atlantic waters are explored, but said the government should move forward with the scheduled lease sale that would include areas off Virginia in 2012.

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