Posted by: Jeff | August 28, 2010

Trouble In (Obama’s) Paradise

A Wednesday article in the Washington Post suggests the Obama administration’s decision to expand offshore oil drilling — which left the White House with substantial egg on its face once the BP spill was underway — was undertaken without meaningful input from some rather important people:

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.

Speaking before the presidential oil spill commission, Jane Lubchenco, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s administrator, and Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said that while they did offer comments about the proposal, the key decisions were made by the president and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees U.S. oil and gas policy under federal law.

Kate Sheppard has filled in some details:

Now, Sutley’s job description at CEQ is mostly confined to making sure that federal agencies uphold the National Environmental Protection Act in their decisionmaking. Any involved on the part of CEQ would come down the line as decisions are made about lease sales or permitting. But Lubchenco’s role as the head of NOAA is much more central here. This is the agency charged with protecting ocean and coastal resources and responsible for evaluating the extent to which drilling operations might impact endangered species, marine mammals, or fisheries. One would hope that its guidance in the expansion plan would be crucial; but while Lubchenco said her agency offered comments on previous leasing plans and there was “formal and informal agency discussion at various points in this process,” NOAA was not asked to approve or disapprove of the plan. Some, though not all, of the agency’s concerns were taken into account, she said.

“You say now you were consulted, but were not part of the group that advised the president on the ultimate decision?” asked Graham. “That’s correct,” Lubchenco replied. Nor was her agency asked if it had the resources available to properly execute the additional responsibilities that this expansion would create, she said. At another point in the hearing, she noted that her agency is already “seriously hampered by a lack of resources” and time to do much of the oversight work it would like to do.

I don’t really have anything terribly insightful to add here. But I do think when you combine this with some of the complaints leaking out of the administration over Larry Summers’ iron-fisted leadership in the economic realm, or the infighting between Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod and the rest of Obama’s cabinet over energy and enviornmental policy, a picture of a certain kind of personnel problem emerges. A few highly opinionated and politically skilled individuals (and not really bad guys, in-and-of themselves) have more or less commandeered the lines of communication to the president’s desk. The result looks like a lack of the kind of give-and-take argument — in which the president needs to be embedded, not just being briefed on after the fact — that’s required to maximize the quality of the policy coming out of the White House.

Obviously, that’s hardly a problem unique to Team Obama. Presidential cabinets have always been plagued by this kind of interpersonal territoriality, and it’s always kind of amazing that something as huge and consequential as executive decision-making can be determined by this kind of banal human activity. But it’s still a problem. And what, if anything, gets done about it will probably be one one of those crucial-yet-under-the-radar stories of the Obama White House.

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