Interview Carol Browner
Browner is the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy; she previously served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Clinton. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 29, 2010.
I want to talk about the evolution of [President] Obama's policy on offshore drilling. During the  campaign, [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] was opposed to offshore drilling initially, and then he flipped, and he started bashing the candidate Obama for holding the same position that he had held. Then candidate Obama flipped his position. What was going on here? Why are both of them flipping their positions on offshore drilling?
I think people were increasingly concerned about our dependence on foreign oil, and there was increasing evidence of large reserves here, both [oil] and natural gas. So it made sense, where we could, to break our dependence on foreign oil and to use our domestic resources, and I think they both realized that.
It appeared extraordinarily political and opportunistic at the time, and in the way in which they changed their positions.
I don't think it was particularly political. I think there were more facts to inform people's thinking about this. We had the large natural gas finds which people hadn't been aware of previously. We may have some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world right here in the United States.
Also, we have the reality of the war and I think increasing concern about our dependence on foreign oil. So there was an evolution in thinking.
During the run-up to [Obama's] decision and speech of March 31, 2010, there was, as you've described it, a lot of discussion around the decision to expand offshore drilling. Can you give me an overview of what that discussion entailed?
I think it's important to remember we inherited an existing five-year plan. We're a couple of years into it from the prior administration. As they left office, they produced a new five-year plan, and it opened up everything. Every single coastline in this country was open to drilling.
So we began by looking at what areas should be properly protected -- for example, Bristol Bay in Alaska should be protected; other sensitive fishery areas up in the New England area -- and then what might be appropriate to open.
So the conversation evolved over a period of time as the Department of Interior brought more information into the discussion, and helpful and appropriate information.
[Are you] saying you walked it back from the Bush administration position?
Yes, the Bush administration position opened up all of our coastlines: California, the Eastern Seaboard, all of Alaska. We walked back from a very large proposal to open up areas to a more refined and environmentally sensitive proposal.
The spotlight is now on deepwater drilling in the gulf, so I want to talk about that. In this process of reassessing the offshore drilling five-year plan, were you aware of the [Minerals Management Service's] 2000 study [PDF] about the possibility, the difficulty of handling a blowout?
What we knew were the safety records were quite significant, that you'd had 30 years of operations without any large-scale problem. MMS and Interior were looking at more information in more detail. But in terms of what we knew, there was this really impressive track record of safety.
Some of the focus here should not be on the industry but on particular companies and their record. BP had a record over the last decade of accidents in Texas City, [Texas,] notoriously, a large spill in Prudhoe Bay, [Alaska]. Was there any discussion of BP, given that they were the largest driller in the gulf and were going to continue to be?
I think it's important to note that the White House is not involved in individual leasing decisions or permitting decisions. Those are handled outside of the political system, and appropriately so. They're factual decisions made by the Department of Interior.
The issue about what areas might get open to lease and what areas might be protected, that was what we were engaged in, because that has a lot of policy implications, not the individual leases.
But if the company that is going to benefit from those leases is a company with -- by their own admission -- a failed safety record, does that come into [play]?
You can't assume that a particular company will benefit from a lease. It's a process; it's an auction. People come in, and they make bids, and the highest bidder wins. There's no way to assume that areas that might have been leased under the new plan would automatically go to BP, absolutely no way to assume that.
So there was no particular discussion of BP, given that they were the largest driller in the gulf?
... That wasn't the question. The way the process works is, first you look at what areas should be open. Then that's made public. Then there's a series of public hearings about those areas. Some of the areas that have been proposed as part of the public process may be scaled back.
Then there's another process to determine the environmental consequences in those areas. Then and only then do you get into individual leasing.
So it's a very lengthy process of analysis, of public input. The decision that the president announced in March was just the beginning of a process. ...
Again, what we were looking at was the very first decision in a long process, which is what areas would be subject to public input, to environmental review. It wasn't about a particular company or a particular technology.
But it was about the feasibility, safety, environmental impact of drilling in deep water.
But I think the important fact was that we had 30 years of safe drilling. You had all the experience of a lot of companies, not one particular company, drilling in the gulf, drilling in other parts where there had not been major accidents. And I think everybody looked at that and thought that was a very important fact. ...
So you did take into consideration the good track record of the industry and deepwater drilling, the technology that had come online over the years. So it would seem reasonable to also consider warnings that were out there, such as the MMS study. And that's why I was asking whether, just as the record of the industry in not having accidents, was it also taken into consideration, warnings by your own government agency?
I don't want to speak for Interior. I would assume that they took into account, making permitting decisions and making leasing decisions, the record of particular equipment, the MMS study that you're talking about. That would all be relevant to the decisions that they would be making, which are not decisions made in the White House.
So that didn't come up in meeting that you were participating in?
It did not? In retrospect, should it have?
Obviously we know that something horrible can go wrong now, and that changes everything. We have to get to the bottom of that, and we have to understand who knew what, when, why something happened, why something may or may not have been done, and, most importantly, what do we do going forward?
That's why there's a commission. That's why there's a whole series of investigations, a Justice Department investigation. So we have all of that information and can make the right decisions about what to do next.
So you heard about that study afterward?
I don't remember when I heard about it. This has obviously been a very intense period. ...
It was just that it was very prescient. It talked about the difficulty of regaining well control in deep water, and that large volumes of oil would be coming out of the well. It seems in retrospect -- in spite of all the trouble that MMS has taken, all the hits that it has taken -- they did put together a rather prescient study in 2000. And I was curious when that came on your radar. You can't tell me?
I don't remember. It's been obviously a complicated 100 days.
In the run-up to the March 31 decision, how many meetings took place with industry or with environmental groups, roughly?
I don't know how many meetings Interior had.
But you were also present at meetings during this process.
Only meetings with Interior here in the White House. There were not meetings with industry. There were not meetings with environmental groups. There were public forums that Interior held, which we were very aware of.
I was just asking about how many meetings did you as the White House adviser on energy [participate in].
There were probably half a dozen or so.
And when was the last meeting?
The last meeting would have been shortly before Interior made the final decision, probably several weeks before.
Can you give us any sense of the pros and cons that were discussed at that point?
The discussion had evolved over a long period of time, because remember, there's this proposal that has been put out by the Bush administration to open up the entire [outer continental shelf].
So the first discussions would have focused on, is that appropriate? The answer is no, it's not appropriate. So what areas do we want to protect?
We made decisions about Alaska; we made decisions about New England, decisions about California. It evolved. Each meeting would evolve based on what had been decided previously.
[Looking] back at the decision, the president has expressed some regret that he wasn't better informed about the dangers of deepwater drilling. Who's responsible for that, him not being better informed?
Obviously we all know something horrible has gone wrong, and [there's a] huge amount of regret around what has happened, disappointment, and how difficult it's been to get this under control.
We've gotten, I think, a good plan in place now in terms of the cleanup. But clearly if we knew what we now know about an accident happening where one had never happened before, we might have made a different decision.
... The president has characterized that process as one that he didn't take lightly. You've talked about it as a long and involved process, an evolution of thinking about this. Is there something that you particularly regret that you missed in that process? You say you wouldn't do it again the same way.
What we've learned is just because something is safe, or appears to have been safe for a very long period of time, doesn't mean it's going to continue to be safe.
You would, knowing that now, make a lot of different decisions, particularly when it comes to leases and individual permit conditions. That's what the secretary of Interior has been looking at in terms of what are the safeguards to put into all of the individual permits and leases.
... Environmental groups have said the writing was on the wall; the MMS study made predictions about what the difficulties might be. So the question comes to you, as the president's adviser, why did you miss the signs that we were relying too much on the record and the technology and assurances that we were getting from the majors?
Oh, no, we were getting [them] from Interior as well.
And getting from Interior as well?
Again, I was talking to the Department of Interior. That's who the White House was talking to. I think if you have a 30-year record, that speaks volumes, and I think most people would look at a 30-year record --
Thirty years ago they weren't drilling many miles down.
No, 30 years ago they began deepwater drilling.
But not at the depths that they were doing in recent years.
Over time it did get deeper, but they began the process, and so there was a very important track record. I think if most of us making decisions in our own lives had 30 years of information that suggested something was safe, we would pay attention to that.
... You sat down for a meeting on April 27, , with [former CEO of BP] Tony Hayward. ...
Correct. Mr. Hayward asked if he could come and brief us on the situation. And he came with several other officials from the company.
How do you describe his demeanor in that meeting?
I think he had a great deal of confidence that they would be able to get the situation under control rather quickly. Obviously that turned out not to be the case.
Was he apologetic in any way?
He was very focused on the technical aspects of what they do, how it would work. This was at the point when they were talking about using the hot stabs to actually close the shear rams. I think [he was] very optimistic that that was going to work.
So a lot of confidence --
A lot of confidence.
-- that things would end soon? He was really wrong.
He was very wrong and very disappointing.
At that early meeting, was there any discussion of ordering a freeze of any destruction of e-mails or documents, internal documents, e-mails of BP?
That would be the Justice Department. ...
... [Attorney General Eric] Holder was not in that meeting?
No, Holder was not. ...
Were there discussions inside the White House about talking to Attorney General Holder about ordering a freeze so that nothing could be destroyed?
I'm not going to speak for the Department of Justice. That wouldn't be appropriate.
I'm asking if there were discussions in the White House about the subject.
When you have a situation, the Justice Department moves rapidly to ensure that what they need is --
But it wasn't until June 3 that Holder announced a criminal investigation.
That doesn't mean things hadn't started previously. ...
... BP has a very bad safety record and has, by its own internal investigations, assessed that it had a failed safety culture in the wake of the Texas City disaster. Also, [a] criminal complaint has been filed, in April of '09 in Alaska, for their failure to upkeep the pipeline facilities on the North Slope. You say when you look at policy decisions, you're not looking at one company, but how do you deal with a company that one former EPA debarment attorney has described as a "serial environmental criminal"?
That should all be part of the permitting process. So when the Department of Interior decides whether or not to let a permit to grant a lease, that's their responsibility. It's not part of the broader policy decision, which is, should we enhance and increase the amount of domestic oil production?
Those are very different [issues]. ... One goes to a particular company. The other goes to, should we be doing this as a country? And if we're doing it, then obviously you have to do it with all the safeguards in place.
At what point does the safety and environmental record of a company operating in the United States -- and not a small operator -- rise to an issue of concern for you in the White House?
Obviously it's a great issue of concern for us now given what's happened. The issue in terms of should a lease be granted to a particular company is something that the Department of Interior decides. It's not a policy decision. ...
But these things get discussed. There has to be concern. If you have a company that has an egregious record of willful --
But the White House is not involved in permitting decisions. That's not our responsibility.
I understand that.
That's all been granted to the agencies by Congress.
I guess I'm looking for a snippet of concern here for the fact that the government, led by the White House, has permitted a company that has continually, by its own admission, shown it's had a failed safety culture. At some point, that rises to a level of concern within the administration beyond simply the permitting process. ...
Obviously we have a great deal of concern with what happened, with what BP did, what they were incapable of doing once this happened.
We're going to do everything to ensure that never happens again. There will be a system going forward that puts in place the safeguards that I'm sure reviews companies and their activities and ensures that there are containment and cleanup strategies that work and work quickly.
I want to be clear. This was obviously a huge disaster. It's the largest environmental disaster in the history of our country. We will do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again.
On June 16, , you're present at a meeting with the chairman of BP. ... It's [Carl-Henric] Svanberg, yourself, the president, [and] I'm not sure who else is there. And he opens the meeting with an apology. Can you describe that to me, and what the demeanor of the chairman was, and what the policy contained?
The chairman and executives joined the president and several of our Cabinet members [in] the Roosevelt Room. It was the beginning of a conversation about establishing a large escrow account for the economic losses of the people and businesses in the region.
The chairman did open with an apology. He stated that he recognized the gravity of what had happened and, I think very importantly, took full responsibility for getting the problem resolved and for making sure that the people of the Gulf of Mexico would be made whole, which was our absolute demand, that this had to be corrected.
We were very clear in that meeting that there would be directives that would be issued both in terms of the contaminate, in terms of the cleanup. We did ultimately reach an agreement that day on the escrow account, which we think is an important step forward. But after that, we continued to issue regular directives to the company about how they needed to get certain things done so we could get this under control.
I think you told one reporter that that you did not expect that apology, that you hadn't requested that apology and that it was a surprise.
No, we did not request the apology. We went in there to get $20 billion for the people of the gulf. We had a very clear agenda. We needed to get this money. We needed to get it put in an escrow account so claims could be paid.
Had you, prior to that, heard any contriteness from BP officials with whom you met, from Tony Hayward?
No, that was the first we had, that in a direct conversation that they had been apologetic. ...