There was one particularly striking moment in President Obama's widely panned June 15 speech on the gulf oil disaster. About midway through his talk, Obama acknowledged that he had approved new offshore drilling a few weeks before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on April 20. But Obama said he had done so only "under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe."
Absolutely safe? Even before the gulf spill, few defenders of offshore drilling would go that far. And when the president announced his drilling plan, on March 31, he said it was "not a decision that I've made lightly" and that he and his advisers had "looked at (it) closely for more than a year." Surely he was told of the possible risks.
"If you can find anything that's absolutely safe, I sure want to find out about it," says Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "There is no engineering system that I am aware of that has zero likelihood of failure."
"We can never be absolutely safe," adds Ken Arnold, an independent consultant to the oil and gas industry. "The only way you can be absolutely certain of being absolutely safe is to shut down all production and all drilling from offshore today."
So how did the president get the idea that new offshore drilling would be absolutely safe? Obama has often said he relies on a "green team" for advice on energy and environmental decisions. The top three members of the team are the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, Carol Browner; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar; and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Did Browner or Salazar or Chu assure the president that new offshore drilling would be "absolutely safe"?
No, says a representative for Chu. "That is actually a question for the Department of the Interior," says the Energy Department's Tiffany Edwards. "The secretary of energy is not involved in that decision making."
Well, then, perhaps it was Salazar or Browner. But a spokesman for Salazar did not respond to questions. Neither did a spokesman for Browner. So at the moment, we don't know who assured the president that new offshore drilling would be absolutely safe.
That's certainly not the way experts talk about the issue. When discussing projects like offshore exploration, engineers often use the phrases "PF," which stands for probability of failure, and "CF," for consequences of failure. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was a classic low-probability, high-consequence event. Even with good safety procedures, strange combinations of human error, mechanical failure and sheer bad luck can combine to cause a devastating accident.
"There has been a constant improvement in safety, but you can never say that a very low probability but very high consequence event is impossible," Arnold says. "You can never say that."
Yet Obama said just that. It could be that one or more of his advisers explicitly told him that drilling would be absolutely safe. If that's the case, he got bad advice.
Or it could be there were mistakes in communication as the assessment of risk made its way through the bureaucracy to the president's ears. Say a government official who specializes in calculating risk determines that there is a one in 10,000 chance, or one in 100,000 chance, or one in 1 million chance of something happening. When the information goes from the specialist to his boss, and then up another level or two, what had begun as a specific risk assessment becomes simply "safe." Then maybe it becomes "absolutely safe."
"By the time it gets to the green team and then to the president, you get these horrible distortions," says Bea.
Of course, there's a third possibility. Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Obama has taken a lot of heat from liberals who never liked his pro-drilling decision in the first place. Maybe he used the words "absolutely safe" to deflect blame and make himself look a little better in retrospect.
That would be troubling, but not as troubling as the possibility that Obama actually believed his own claim. What would that say about the president many commentators have described as brilliant?