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Obama and oil drilling: How politics spilled into policy

Just weeks before the worst oil spill in U.S. history, President Obama announced an expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration, at one point stating "oil rigs today generally don't cause spills." After the spill, in an Oval Office address to the nation, the president announced a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling.

Members of the transition team increasingly rallied around Salazar, then a senator from Colorado, whose views on drilling and centrist inclinations aligned better with the president-elect's leanings.

In early December 2008, Salazar had an audience with Obama, who listened as Salazar ran through his policy priorities. "Number one, moving forward with a new direction on energy and developing a comprehensive energy plan," Salazar recalled telling the president-elect. "And that included a new direction, balancing the developing of conventional fuels, including oil and gas, both offshore and onshore."

Also at the top of Salazar's list, he told Obama, would be "opening up the whole new world of renewable energy."

Obama had found the interior secretary he wanted.

For his White House energy adviser, Obama brought aboard another moderate: Browner, who led the Environmental Protection Agency during Bill Clinton's administration. Once a staunch foe of more drilling, Browner had changed her mind during her years out of government.

"As the industry evolved, as the issues around our dependence on foreign oil evolved, my thinking evolved," she explained in a recent interview. "At one point in my life, I would've been very opposed to nuclear power. But as the impact of climate change became more and more stark and apparent . . . how could I rule out a clean source of energy if I believe, as I do, that climate change is a real problem?"

A climate-change bill was the holy grail. Obama wanted Browner's help in delivering one that, at a minimum, would place a market-based cap on carbon pollution for businesses and utilities. The aim: Create incentives for companies and others to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

For such legislation to stand a chance, the administration would need to build a political bridge to influential senators, specifically Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, whose support was seen as an essential first step in bringing others along.

Among the words that Graham wanted to hear more clearly: We'll support new drilling.


The negotiator

It wasn't simply that Graham was a Republican. He also had nurtured his reputation as a soft-spoken negotiator with credibility across the political divide. He offered a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval for Democratic politicians looking to avoid the label of hyperpartisan.

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