Obama and oil drilling: How politics spilled into policy
In early April, fresh from announcing his decision to allow drilling in previously protected waters, an upbeat President Obama traveled to a battery factory in North Carolina. The day's topic was the economy, but a concerned questioner rose after the speech to ask about the thinking behind his new drilling decree.
Obama's expansive answer included a revealing aside about his confidence in the safety of offshore operations. "It turns out, by the way, the oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," the president told the questioner, a man from Charlotte. "They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn't come from the rigs."
It was 18 days before BP's Macondo well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 and leading Obama to halt new deep-water drilling under the just-lifted temporary ban - 18 days before the men calling the shots on the BP rig would demolish Obama's assurances about the safety of extracting oil from depths no one had fathomed only 20 years ago.
For Obama, it was still a time to trumpet his policy. He cast it as one forged from science and study, the product of a lengthy, robust assessment led by his interior secretary, Ken Salazar.
"This is not a decision I've made lightly," the president said in his March 31 announcement at Andrews Air Force Base. "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. But the bottom line is this: Given our energy needs . . . we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."
The moment was vintage Obama - emphasizing his zest for inquiry, his personal involvement, his willingness to make the tough call, his search for middle ground. If an Obama brand exists, it is his image as a probing, cerebral president conducting an exhaustive analysis of the issues so that the best ideas can emerge, and triumph.
Two months later, in his June 15 speech to the nation about the blowout, Obama would fault the decision-making process he had earlier lauded as careful and collaborative. Not only had something gone wrong in the gulf, he would suggest - but something had also gone wrong at the White House, and at the Interior Department.
"I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs," he said, "but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deep-water drilling to continue."
How had this happened? How had Obama - the man who came into office promising a rigorous, evidence-based post-partisan style of analysis - come to believe that he lacked the facts he needed to make such an important decision?
It was more than bad luck and bad timing. This article, based on dozens of interviews with people directly involved, reveals that fundamental questions weren't pursued because top administration officials generally accepted the conventional view of the industry's safety record. They were focused on the environmental issues - how drilling and a possible spill would affect sensitive habitats - and not on the engineering risks of exploration.
Few studies existed on the technological challenges involved in pursuing oil and gas in ever-deeper waters. The law required Interior Department officials to make an environmental assessment; it did not require a comparable examination of engineering questions or safety concerns.
Salazar's 14-month review had concentrated mostly on where, not whether, exploration should be allowed. Politics factored into his recommendations as he took into account which states wanted more drilling and which would resist it.