RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Obama's approach to domestic oil drilling has shifted over this year. Those shifts have managed to anger just about everyone in the oil drilling debate at one time or another. NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro has this report on how the White House has been navigating these choppy waters.
ARI SHAPIRO: At Andrews Air Force Base in March, President Obama surprised many of his supporters with these words:
President BARACK OBAMA: Today, we're announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration.
SHAPIRO: Michael Brune is the Sierra Club's executive director.
Mr. MICHAEL BRUNE (Executive Director, Sierra Club): It's risky, it's dangerous, and there's a better way to meet America's energy needs than to engage in a set of activities that are proven to be unsafe.
SHAPIRO: In April, the Deepwater Horizon well exploded. President Obama declared a one-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling. And as that month drew to a close, the president said this in the White House Rose Garden:
Pres. OBAMA: We will continue the existing moratorium and suspend the issuance of new permits to drill new deepwater wells for six months.
Ms. RAYOLA DOUGHER (Senior Economic Adviser, American Petroleum Institute): Why six months, what does that mean?
SHAPIRO: Rayola Dougher is a senior economic adviser for the American Petroleum Institute. She says the six-month moratorium is devastating the lives of rig workers for no good reason.
Ms. DOUGHER: How are you more safe in six months? What do we need to do? None of that was lined up. It was just kind of an arbitrary six-month period.
SHAPIRO: And on this issue, Brune of the Sierra Club, partially agrees with Dougher.
Mr. BRUNE: We're skeptical about whether a six-month moratorium will actually solve the problem or if it's mostly designed to solve the appearance of a problem.
SHAPIRO: Dougher of the Petroleum Institute wants a shorter moratorium. Brune of the Sierra Club wants a longer one. Both sides accuse the White House of shifting with the tide.
But White House energy advisor Carol Browner says that's not what's happening at all.
Ms. CAROL BROWNER (Energy Adviser, White House): As part of breaking our dependence on foreign oil, we needed to look at domestic opportunity. And thus, you know, we put forward a plan that would've increased domestic production. And that's all, I think, been consistent, you know, throughout, again, the candidacy and the presidency. Obviously, we had an accident occur and we learned things that we didn't know.
SHAPIRO: Now, she says, deepwater drilling is on hold until the administration has the answers to three specific questions: Why did the spill happen? How can future spills be contained? And what's the best way to clean up a spill?
Ms. BROWNER: As we get answers to these questions, there will be a return to drilling. But until we have the answers, we need to maintain this pause.
SHAPIRO: And how is the need for the answers to those three questions tied with the specific six-month timeframe that the president announced?
Ms. BROWNER: The timeframe is to make sure we have adequate opportunity to get the answers. If we get them sooner, we can lift the moratorium sooner. But we need to get the answers to the question.
SHAPIRO: Does saying that, if we get the answers sooner than November 30th, we can lift the moratorium sooner - also imply that if we don't have those answers by November 30, the moratorium could go longer?
Ms. BROWNER: We have to get the answers. I mean, whether we get them next week or next month, we need to get the answers.
SHAPIRO: The Petroleum Institute's Rayola Dougher says this proves her point.
Ms. DOUGHER: Uncertainty is really almost as devastating as the certainty. It makes it very difficult for anyone to move forward with investment decisions. Do I stay in the Gulf? Do I leave? You really need to make that decision sooner than later.
SHAPIRO: And just as the President is facing questions about his decision to impose the moratorium, there will be questions about his eventual decision to lift it.
I asked the Sierra Club's Brune: When it comes to this specific issue of deciding whether and when to lift the drilling moratorium, how much confidence do you have that he will do the right thing?
Mr. BRUNE: I would say it's pretty low right now.
SHAPIRO: Ultimately, whether the moratorium is lifted next month or next year, some will say it is overdue, and others, it's premature.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.