As Barack Obama arrives in Louisiana Friday for his second visit since the BP oil disaster, he faces a defining moment in his presidency. Already, the gusher ranks as the worst environmental catastrophe in American history, and it happened, as Obama says, on his watch. (The US Geological Survey estimates that as much as 39 million gallons of oil have leaked from the BP well, nearly four times as much as the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.) So once the president has seen the resulting devastation for himself—the miles and miles of polluted coastal marshes and beaches, the oil-coated birds and marine life struggling to survive, the ruined livelihoods of the local fishermen and women—will he continue to insist that offshore oil drilling be expanded in the United States, but simply under safer operating procedures? Or will he seize this opportunity to reframe the debate and summon America to leave the dirty, dangerous fuels of yesterday behind in favor of the clean, sustainable energy of tomorrow?
Closely related to these choices is a third: will Obama continue to stand by his secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar? One head has already rolled as the administration responds to public anger about its handling of the disaster: Elizabeth Birnbaum, the director of the Interior Department agency in charge of permitting offshore oil operations, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), resigned Thursday morning. Asked whether Birnbaum had in fact resigned or was fired, Obama said in his press conference Thursday afternoon that he didn’t know the circumstances of her departure. He then made a point of expressing support for his Interior Secretary: "I want people…who don’t make excuses when things break down but get in there and fix them, and I have confidence Ken Salazar will do that."
Salazar certainly believes in offshore oil drilling, but whether he can be trusted to regulate it is another matter. One wouldn’t know it from his recent public statements, but Ken Salazar has long been one of the strongest advocates of offshore oil drilling in Washington. In 2008, as a Democratic Senator from Colorado, he criticized the Bush-Cheney administration for not doing enough to promote offshore drilling. In 2006, Sen. Salazar was the architect of the Gulf of Mexico Economic Security Act, which opened eight million acres of the Gulf to drilling. In 2009, as Interior Secretary, Salazar oversaw his department’s lease of 55 million acres of the Gulf for oil and gas drilling. "The technology today is remarkable," he said, "and we are encouraged by new deep water plays in the Gulf." In 2010, Salazar led the deliberations that resulted in Obama’s March 31 endorsement of expanded offshore oil and gas drilling, which made Obama the first Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson to support offshore drilling.
Now, it appears that Salazar may have lied about the Obama administration’s promised moratorium on offshore drilling following the BP Deepwater disaster. At the very least, he seems to have misled outsiders—including Congress, the public and perhaps president Obama himself—about what his department has done to halt oil business as usual in the Gulf. On May 18, Salazar testified to Congress that, responding to Obama’s orders, he and his department "hit the pause button" on new drilling permits, adding that "no new deepwater wells have been spudded" (i.e., started) since the April 20 explosion. Later that day, however, a spokesperson for the Interior Department, Matt Lee-Ashley, explained via e-mail that Salazar had "misspoken" before Congress. In truth, a deepwater well was started in the Gulf after April 20, and Salazar’s department had issued permits for at least seventeen other new offshore oil projects.
Credit for exposing these actions goes to the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the only environmental organizations to have opposed Salazar’s nomination as interior secretary. Shortly after the April 20 explosion, the center unearthed Interior Department records showing that the department’s MMS had approved—under Salazar’s leadership and without the usual environmental review—the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling operation, as the Washington Post reported on May 5. Only then did Salazar announce a moratorium on new drilling. In the words of an Interior Department press release on May 6, "no applications for drilling permits will go forward for any new offshore drilling activity" until the department completed a review Obama had requested of the causes of the BP disaster and how similar disasters could be prevented in the future.