Pressures Mount to Resume Drilling .

WASHINGTON—Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to meet with oil industry executives in Houston Friday to assess the industry’s readiness to handle a major offshore oil spill, amid growing pressure from congressional Republicans and a federal judge to resume deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Salazar is expected to meet with representatives of an industry-led consortium, Marine Well Containment Co., and Helix Energy Solutions Group Inc., a company that aided BP PLC with BP’s response to last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Obama administration has said the oil industry must demonstrate it can quickly contain a large offshore spill before it will allow companies to resume drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet.

The recent jump in world oil prices and U.S. gasoline prices following unrest in Libya has spurred renewed calls from many Republicans and Gulf Coast Democrats in Congress to allow more domestic production. One House committee is scheduled to hold hearings on drilling policy next month.

Crude oil futures pulled back late Thursday after hitting the highest levels in more than 2 1/2 years on fears that the chaos in Libya would disrupt supplies.

Separately, three Democratic lawmakers called on the administration to consider releasing oil from the government’s strategic petroleum reserves to tamp down gasoline prices.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the U.S. “has the capacity to act in the event of a major disruption” in oil prices, but did not take a position on the lawmakers’ request.

“We are in touch with the IEA and oil-producing countries about the developments in the market,” Mr. Carney told reporters, referring to the International Energy Agency, a body that the U.S. and other countries use to coordinate oil reserves.

Clearing the way for more offshore drilling would do little in the near term to increase domestic oil supplies. But it could insulate the Obama administration from Republican charges that the White House is denying access to domestic supplies at a time when markets are increasingly jittery about the security of Middle Eastern oil supplies amid the unrest across the region.

Since last summer’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, the Obama administration has questioned whether the oil industry can prevent another such accident or contain a large-scale spill. After lifting a moratorium on new deep-water drilling last fall, the Obama administration has yet to issue a permit for a new oil and gas well.

Last week, the industry consortium, led by Exxon Mobil Corp., said it was ready to deploy a device that can capture up to 60,000 barrels a day of oil gushing from an underwater well—approximately the amount the government estimates was leaking from the BP well.

“I’m on my way to Houston now to go examine the latest on the sealing caps that have been prepared by the two different companies on oil spill containment,” Mr. Salazar told reporters at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. He left the event without elaborating on the purpose of the trip.

Mr. Salazar also faces some legal pressures to act. Last week, a federal judge ordered Mr. Salazar’s department to decide within 30 days whether to grant a set of five permits for deep-water drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico, saying the administration’s inaction on the requests is “increasingly inexcusable.”

The ruling by Judge Martin Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana came in response to a lawsuit filed by London-based Ensco PLC.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Salazar declined to comment on how the department will respond to Judge Feldman’s ruling.

—Stephen Power contributed to this article.

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