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Lifting the drilling moratorium: How politics spilled into policy

President Obama with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who led the 14-month study that ultimately resulted in an expansion of offshore drilling.
President Obama with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who led the 14-month study that ultimately resulted in an expansion of offshore drilling. (Gerald Herbert)

A compatible duo

If candidate Obama's comments on offshore drilling left room for interpretation, President-elect Obama's search for an interior secretary clarified the path he would eventually take.

In the early rounds, the leading candidate appeared to be Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a favorite of environmental groups.

His star eventually dimmed, various news reports suggested at the time, because Obama preferred Ken Salazar's more moderate views. That was true, as far as it went. The full story, however, makes it clear that Grijalva's views on expanded drilling put him at odds with the direction that Obama had chosen.

Members of Obama's transition team for the Interior Department, who were handling the preliminary talks with Grijalva and others, spoke enthusiastically about Obama's "balanced" energy approach, which embraced new drilling as a transition to a day when "clean" energy could replace fossil fuels.

A dissenting Grijalva told the transition team that it was premature to talk about an expansion of drilling. His first priority, he said, would be correcting the dangerous imbalance he saw between industry and federal regulators. Before he could endorse expansion, Grijalva suggested, Interior would need to regain the upper hand.

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?"

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