Anatomy of a bad decision: Obama’s embrace of offshore drilling was made by limiting scientific and environmental input

Two of President Obama’s top environmental advisers told a panel investigating the cause of the BP oil spill Wednesday that they did not provide the environmental and scientific basis for the administration’s new five-year plan expanding oil and gas drilling off the nation’s coasts.

I was not a fan of Obama’s decision to allow drilling and/or exploration off much of the U.S. coast on energy, environmental or political grounds (see EIA: New offshore drilling will lower gas prices in 2030 a few pennies a gallon, Bush official Dan Bartlett admits authorizing offshore oil drilling will be unlikely to win over any GOP votes: “Republicans have made a calculation that cooperating with this administration at this time is not necessary for them to pick up seats”).

Ultimately, the decision proved catastrophic from a positioning and messaging perspective — making it one of White House’s biggest blunders to date. It put Obama on the side of drilling right before the biggest oil disaster in U.S. history.

Now it’s clear that this poor decision looked amateurish because it was. The administration simply didn’t do his homework. The decision was made without full scientific and environmental input — by design. The Washington Independent explains:


In making its decision to expand offshore drilling earlier this year (before the massive oil spill in the Gulf), the Obama administration did not work closely with two key federal bodies responsible for environmental oversight.

At the second meeting of the National Oil Spill Commission today, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley said the council was not “specifically asked for anything” in the run-up to President Obama’s decision. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco said the agency was consulted in making the decision, but “was not in a position” to offer its approval of the final plan.

The revelation appears to be in stark contrast to March remarks by President Obama announcing the new offshore drilling plan, which would have allowed drilling along the lower part of the East coast and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. Obama said he had worked with members of his administration for more than a year to develop the plan. But the remarks of Sutley and Lubchenco indicate that the administration did not work closely with at least two key federal bodies responsible for the protection of the environment and the oceans “” issues that have taken on new importance in the aftermath of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

In addition, Lubchenco said NOAA was not asked specifically if it had the resources to oversee the environmental reviews associated with additional drilling. In fact, Lubchenco said earlier at the meeting, “We are seriously hampered by lack of resources to do many of these [reviews], especially under the time frames that are required.” Under the law, there is a 30-day time frame for certain environmental reviews.

The Washington Post reports Lubchenco said, “I would say that the concerns that we raised were listened to and that many of them were incorporated into the final decision, but not all of them.” It adds:

The chairmen of the commission told reporters that Wednesday’s testimony surprised and disappointed them.

Graham said that he would have expected NOAA and the Council on Environmental Quality to be in on the discussions, adding that he was surprised by testimony that they were not.

“I’m disappointed that the Council on Environmental Quality particularly would not have been included,” said Reilly, who led the EPA during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The drilling decision was a poor one. Now we know one of the reasons why.