Washington – Weeks before the world had ever heard of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, President Barack Obama stood in the Roosevelt Room of the White House poring over maps of oil drilling sites in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska and elsewhere.
Satisfied that he knew all he needed to know and confident that it was safe, he decided to propose expanded offshore drilling.
“This is not a decision that I’ve made lightly,” he said when he unveiled his proposal on March 31.
“Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” he added two days later. “They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn’t come from the oil rigs, they came from the refineries onshore.”
On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, setting off the largest oil spill in U.S. history. It drove Obama to freeze the proposal he’d just made.
An in-depth review by McClatchy reveals how Obama reached that initial decision to expand offshore drilling _ and why he failed to get information that might have led him instead to delay or oppose it and perhaps even raise questions about the deepwater drilling that was already under way.
Obama did roll back some of the offshore drilling that the George W. Bush administration had approved on Bush’s last day in office. However, Obama never challenged the Bush era’s fundamental faith in the oil industry or its ability to clean up a massive spill. Instead, he embraced expanded offshore drilling, in part to win Republican support for broader legislation to curb climate change.
“He deserved to be more skeptical,” said Stephen Hess, a veteran of four White Houses back to the Eisenhower administration and an expert on how presidents do their job.
“They hadn’t thought through the various ramifications. They should have, obviously. But it didn’t seem obvious at the time.”
“Not well thought through,” said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska marine scientist. “If they had really done their job, they would have understood there was high risk here.”
Indeed, Obama and his team overlooked some important points as they prepared to give the green light to more offshore oil drilling. Expanding the drilling was something he’d promised to do during his campaign, when gas prices topped $4 a gallon, and it was a lure he planned to use to win Republican votes for legislation aimed at curbing climate change.
Among their oversights:
- Obama thought that funneling information through White House “czars” such as energy and environment adviser Carol Browner would get him all the data he needed.
- He failed to drill into the government bureaucracy to test that information. He didn’t, for example, ask about the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which had prepared a report in 2000 on the dangers of deepwater drilling that proved to be eerily predictive of what happened in the Gulf. The MMS regulates offshore drilling.
- He never talked to the Coast Guard about its 2002 oil-spill drill in the Gulf or to the man who ran it, Adm. Thad Allen, who later would oversee the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.
- He didn’t reach out to outside experts, such as the National Academy of Engineering, to question claims that deepwater drilling technology was dependable.
Top Obama administration officials say that they did an exhaustive job marshaling information for more than a year, and that the president asked what he needed to ask when it arrived at his desk. Anyone, they said, would grow complacent about the safety of offshore drilling after decades without a major spill.
“It’s really important to understand you have decades of nothing going wrong,” said one senior administration official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy.
“The last time you saw a spill of this magnitude in the Gulf, it was off the coast of Mexico in 1979,” a second senior administration official said. “If something doesn’t happen since 1979, you begin to take your eye off of that thing.”
Obama’s management of the March 31 oil decision is important not simply because the April 20 disaster turned a global spotlight on the entire subject. The governing style of Obama, a new president with no prior executive experience, has been subject to constant second-guessing.
How he makes decisions when no one is watching is arguably as illuminating — perhaps more so — as how he decides when the whole world is watching, such as his long deliberation last fall over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Then, he held three months of meetings, publicized with White House photos released to the media and documented with briefings to reporters backed by notes taken during the sessions.
This time, he met twice with the top administration officials on the oil drilling question. Aides couldn’t recall details of the deliberations, such as the date of the last meeting with the president or the length of the memo they gave him on oil drilling.
“I had never had an inquiry about how we made that decision,” one top aide said, until after “one of them blew up in the Gulf.”
For Obama, a former campaign adviser said, the decision to expand offshore drilling was born in the 2008 campaign, when gasoline prices were soaring and Republican rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona was scoring with his promise of more production — drill, baby, drill — to drive down prices.
Obama also warmed to new offshore drilling as part of a bipartisan proposal in Congress, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to allow expanded drilling while pushing higher fuel efficiency.
The president and his political aides looked at proposing expanded drilling as a way to win Republican support for a broader energy bill aimed at climate change.
“Involving offshore drilling way back in the campaign, and then in March, has been part of a series of bank shots all intended to address other issues, as opposed to being a free-standing priority,” said an environmental activist who’s close to the White House, who asked not to be identified because he was criticizing the administration.
“It was not a full-blown policy proposal,” the activist said. “It was bait in the water.”
“Absolutely not true,” Browner said in an interview. “There was a lot of time and energy spent on this … trying to determine what was the appropriate thing to do.”
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gathered information about oil drilling for a year, including public hearings in Alaska, California, Louisiana and New Jersey. More than 530,000 comments were collected.
Browner was the West Wing aide responsible for taking Salazar’s recommendations and all viewpoints to Obama. She’s the assistant to the president for energy and climate change, with a deep background in environmental work. She was an aide to Al Gore, the director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration.
She said she didn’t advocate choices inside the White House.
“My job is to be an honest broker … on behalf of the Cabinet agencies,” she said, “to ensure that they are able to present their best recommendations to the president and that he has all of the information he needs to make a decision.”
Despite the brouhaha over Obama’s reliance on White House aides dubbed “czars” to oversee areas of policy, all modern presidents rely on top aides to funnel information to them, particularly when it comes from more than one department.
Bush, for example, insisted that one presidential assistant “own” any given issue so the president would know whom to go to and who could be held accountable, according to Bradley H. Patterson, the author of an authoritative book on White House management, “To Serve the President.”
After being updated periodically by Browner on the discussions that were under way, Obama received the final summary of recommendations first in a memo — aides couldn’t recall how many pages it was — then in a meeting for a final decision.
In the Roosevelt Room, Obama met with Browner, Salazar and others, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Deputy Chief of Staff Mona Sutphen and Budget Director Peter Orszag.
Administration officials said they heard dissent and changed the proposal in response. They banned drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay and refused to propose new drilling leases for Alaska’s Beaufort Sea.
“There were people who argued that certain areas should be protected, so, for example, the Beaufort Sea got protected,” Browner said.
However, the March 31 decision left in place plans to allow Shell Oil to start drilling five exploratory wells already leased in the Beaufort Sea, plans that weren’t frozen until May 27, five weeks after Deepwater Horizon exploded.
Obama never reached out himself to prominent dissenters such as marine scientist Steiner, who’d argued to Interior against expanding offshore drilling. Steiner had worked on oil spill responses from the Exxon Valdez in 1989 through today’s Gulf spill.
“He didn’t talk to me,” Steiner said.
Digging Into His Government
As he reviewed the pending decision, Obama didn’t ask for more information about the Minerals Management Service. Now infamous but little-known then, the MMS is the primary agency that oversees oil drilling. In 2000, it prepared a report that warned of the possibility of a major spill that could start with a fire atop a rig, noting that “retaining well control in deep water may be a problem,” and said that spreading oil could both remain underwater and rush ashore.
That report was shelved during the Bush years as the government bowed to the claimed technological infallibility of the oil industry. In fact, the agency became known for cozy relationships between regulators and the oil industry, something Salazar set out to fix when he took office last year.
Obama recently conceded that he was wrong to trust the oil companies.
“Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios,” he said. “Now, that wasn’t based on just my blind acceptance of their statements. Oil drilling has been going on in the Gulf, including deep water, for quite some time. And the record of accidents like this we hadn’t seen before.”
He also laid some blame on the MMS.
“Prior to this accident happening, I think there was a lack of anticipating what the worst-case scenarios would be. And that’s a problem,” he said. “And part of that problem was lodged in MMS and the way that that agency was structured. That was the agency in charge of providing permitting and making decisions in terms of where drilling could take place, but also in charge of enforcing the safety provisions.”
Yet Obama didn’t ask about the MMS when he was weighing whether to expand drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.
“In making OCS decisions, you wouldn’t have necessarily needed to ask about sort of what information MMS has,” the first senior administration official said. “In making the OCS decisions, the focus was not based on MMS information per se.”
The official said that the president “was aware that Ken Salazar had been making changes in terms of the ethics issues that had been quite significant in the prior administration” and the president was satisfied that Salazar “had taken important steps.”
While not asking about the MMS is potentially embarrassing in hindsight, presidential expert Hess said it was unrealistic to expect a president to know much about an otherwise obscure agency.
“MMS is probably an agency that never crops up on the White House radar. It’s in the bowels of the bureaucracy,” Hess said. “No president pays equal attention to every piece of the bureaucracy.”
Obama also didn’t personally quiz the Coast Guard or Adm. Thad Allen, who’d run an oil spill exercise off Louisiana in 2002 and who’d be the national commander of any federal oil spill response.
“Not that I’m aware of,” the first senior official said.
“The president understood that there are safety plans associated with each lease. What are they called? Contingency response plans, something like that. … That’s part of the safety checks and balances in the system.”
The administration officials also noted that Obama’s drilling proposal would require further studies and permits before any drilling started.
Some presidents like to reach outside official channels for unfiltered advice. Bill Clinton, for example, loved to call people late into the night.
Obama did, too, when he was seeking the office. For example, he reached out to private-sector experts — such as Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers — discussing energy with them in his campaign headquarters for three hours straight one Monday in June 2008.
“That was the beginning, I think, of the thought process” leading to expanded offshore oil drilling, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
The president also has expressed a desire to seek outside expertise since the oil spill.
“We’re relying on experts who’ve actually dealt with oil spills from across the globe,” Obama said at a news conference, adding that he and his administration would talk to the National Academy of Engineering, the National Laboratories and experts in academia.
He didn’t seek such outside expertise until the spill, however, at least not to ask about oil drilling technology in deep water or oil-spill response plans.
“Beyond routine meetings with ‘green group’ environmental organization CEOs and policy staff, I don’t think the administration reached out,” said Dianne Saenz, the communications director for Oceana, one of the environmental groups. “We did not know the specifics of the March 31 announcement on expanded offshore drilling areas before it was made.”
Browner said Obama did reach out.
“He’s met several times with representatives of the environmental community who would have raised this issue,” she said. “He also has met with various groups of business leaders who were interested in energy reform, some of whom would have raised this issue.
“They were not brought in specifically on this issue; they were brought in on energy more broadly.” Asked why Obama didn’t ask for outside opinions as he did in his campaign, she said that he now had staff do that.
“You have all these advisers; their job is to go out and do those sorts of things,” she said. “Our job is to synthesize this information and bring it back to him.”
Inside the White House, aides say that they and their president did the best they could, given the context before the unprecedented accident.
“The best piece of evidence we had was that there hadn’t been a problem for decades,” Browner said. “There are very few industries where you can probably look back over a several-decade period and not have a large-scale problem.”
“Nobody expected the damned thing to blow up,” said Hess, the presidential scholar. “A lot of things don’t get that presidential attention because the president is busy and historically, statistically, it’s not apt to happen very often.
“If somebody tells you something happens in Kandahar, you better challenge it if lives are at stake. But most things in the bureaucracy, you have some faith in the people you’ve asked to gather the information.”
Ultimately, it’s up to Obama to decide whether he’s satisfied with how he reached his decision to propose more offshore drilling.
A president’s decisions are only as good as the information that generates them. That point was driven home in early 1961, when an inexperienced President John F. Kennedy blindly signed off on what would become the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
Kennedy learned. Afterward he personally questioned experts skeptically, including his own generals. Eighteen months later, facing the Cuban Missile Crisis, he developed an advisory system that remains a model of executive decision-making, one that helped the world escape its closest brush with nuclear war.