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.
Obama received that review today and at his press conference announced a number of apparent restrictions on offshore drilling. The president said he was suspending oil exploration off the coast of Alaska and cancelling lease sales for drilling off the coasts of Louisiana and Virginia. Perhaps most significant, Obama said his administration would extend its existing moratorium on offshore drilling for an additional six months while it pursued "a thoroughgoing scrub of safety procedures."
But Salazar's record both before and after the BP disaster raises serious questions about his fitness to "hold BP accountable," as Obama today pledged to do. In particular, the extension of the administration's existing moratorium may be more of a public relations maneuver than a genuine crackdown on irresponsible permitting.
"After Salazar announced the moratorium [on May 6], we decided to dig deeper into the MMS data base," Kieran Suckling, the CBD executive director, told The Nation. "We found that, in fact, MMS was still issuing permits, even for projects in ultra-deep water, including some 10,000 feet below the surface." (The BP Deepwater well is approximately 5,000 feet below the surface.) "The New York Times broke that story  on May 14. That very day, Obama called an unscheduled press conference in the Rose Garden. His remarks were interesting for two reasons. One, because he spent the first half of his statement talking about what a great job Ken Salazar was doing, which may end up being remembered as Obama's 'You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie' moment in this scandal. And in the second half of his statement, Obama becomes the first administration official to switch the terminology [of the moratorium] from 'no new drilling' to 'no new wells.' In other words, the moratorium would not apply to wells that already exist."
Echoing Obama's Rose Garden statement, a spokesperson for the Interior Department told The Nation that Salazar's May 6 moratorium announcement applied only to applications for new drilling permits (my emphasis), "and no permits to drill new wells have been issued since." The moratorium, it seems, is about as air tight as the drill shaft of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig.
Responding to Obama's press conference today, the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release, "President Obama's speech follows a month of half-steps and broken promises by the Interior Department since the Deepwater Horizon explosion in which a pledged 'moratorium' on oil drilling turned out to be largely a fiction."
In today's press conference, Obama was clearly trying to appear more engaged and aggressive on the BP disaster, saying the tragedy is the first thing he thinks of every day and the last thing at night. Just this morning, he said, his daughter Malia knocked on his bathroom door while he was shaving to ask, "Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?" Obama also emphasized that the disaster underscores the need for the United States to transition to clean energy technologies. But he then balanced that assertion by acknowledging America will still be using oil ten years from now, and it's better for our national economy and security if we produce it domestically. Offshore drilling clearly remains part of his vision for the nation's energy future.
We've seen this movie before with Obama. When Wall Street nearly crashed the global economy, Obama responded by listening to advisers—notably chief White House economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—whose sympathies lay with the megabanks that gamed the system rather than with the ordinary Americans who paid the price in the form of unemployment slips and foreclosure notices. The bailout plan Obama ended up backing was a great deal for Wall Street, a terrible deal for Main Street. What's more, the president allowed himself to be seen during the bank bailout drama as taking the side of the villains rather than the victims—a damaging and unnecessary political choice.
Now, Obama is in danger of making the same mistake with the BP oil disaster. Substitute Salazar for Geithner, substitute continued offshore oil drilling after the worst environmental disaster in history for continued lax banking regulation after the worst financial breakdown in decades, and the parallel is complete. In his final remark of the press conference, Obama drew the parallel himself, saying, "As in the financial markets, when big crises happen, it forces us to do some soul-searching." Obama signaled today he wants to look tough on BP and demand exemplary behavior from the oil industry in general. But credibly standing up to Big Oil is difficult when your administration's point man on the issue has long been the industry's chief cheerleader and shows few signs of changing his views. If Obama truly wants to chart a new course in dealing with the BP disaster and accelerating America's transition to a clean energy future, he should start by requesting Ken Salazar's resignation.