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Top Obama environmental advisers had limited role in plan to expand oil drilling

By Juliet Eilperin and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 10:47 PM

Two of President Obama's top environmental advisers told a panel investigating the cause of the BP oil spill Wednesday that they did not provide the environmental and scientific basis for the administration's new five-year plan expanding oil and gas drilling off the nation's coasts.

Speaking before the presidential oil spill commission, Jane Lubchenco, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's administrator, and Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said that while they did offer comments about the proposal, the key decisions were made by the president and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees U.S. oil and gas policy under federal law.

The replies came during the second public session of the commission, appointed in May by Obama to explore the causes of the explosion, improve spill responses and recommend ways to minimize a recurrence.

The seven-member panel must deliver a report to Obama by early January. William K. Reilly, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Bob Graham, a former U.S. senator and Florida governor, head the commission.

Obama unveiled his five-year drilling policy March 31, banning energy exploration off the Pacific Coast and some waters off Alaska while raising the possibility of drilling in parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off Virginia and other southeastern states. The move was praised by some Republicans and moderate Democrats, along with oil and gas executives. But it sparked criticism from environmentalists that has intensified since the April 20 gulf oil-well explosion.

At the time of the announcement, Obama said, "It is one that Ken - Secretary Salazar - and I, as well as Carol Browner, my energy adviser, and others in my administration looked at closely for more than a year."

Graham asked Sutley, "I gather from what you said earlier you were not one of those 'others in my administration' who had been tasked to look at this issue. Is that correct?"

"We had not been specifically asked for anything," she replied.

Earlier in the questioning, Sutley told panel member Terry D. Garcia that she and her staff "weren't asked . . . what level of environmental analysis is appropriate for the kinds of planning and decisions that - that result from that - that March announcement."

NOAA submitted 26 pages of comments on the five-year plan on Sept. 21, 2009, that raised concerns about the environmental impact of drilling in the Arctic and the ability of energy companies to respond to a spill. Still, Lubchenco told Graham, "Mr. Chairman, I was not directly involved in reviewing the plans."

A few minutes earlier, Lubchenco told Garcia, "I would say that the concerns that we raised were listened to and that many of them were incorporated into the final decision, but not all of them."

The hearing in the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington was more sparsely attended and less animated than the opening session in July in New Orleans, which drew several hundred people on each of two days and brought heartfelt testimony about the impact of the spill and of the drilling moratorium in testimony from local leaders and other residents.

The chairmen of the commission told reporters that Wednesday's testimony surprised and disappointed them.

Graham said that he would have expected NOAA and the Council on Environmental Quality to be in on the discussions, adding that he was surprised by testimony that they were not.

"I'm disappointed that the Council on Environmental Quality particularly would not have been included," said Reilly, who led the EPA during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the plan "reflects nearly 500,000 comments from the public, numerous public meetings around the country and input from states, tribes and other federal agencies."

eilperinj@washpost.com flahertym@washpost.com

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