Reporting from the Gulf of Mexico — The waves were flat and blue when the smell through the open door of the helicopter blasted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar like a spray of WD-40. Moments later, orange streaks came into view, the telltale outer fringe of a massive oil slick. Then the streaks gave way to a bloody red sheen that seemed to stretch endlessly.
On the horizon, columns of black smoke climbed to the clouds, signs of the effort to eliminate pockets of crude by burning them.
The helicopter touched down on a massive drilling rig. Salazar was soon hiking up the metal stairs and through the air-conditioned control rooms of the Development Driller II, interrogating officials from BP and Transocean Ltd. on the progress of their efforts to tap into the runaway well 1,000 yards to the southwest and 5,000 feet below the surface. He draped an arm around the backs of workers, leaning in close to listen.
After Salazar moved on, however, camaraderie turned to caution. It was not lost on anyone that the man in the Interior Department cap had called a six-month halt to deep-water drilling.
"A lot of guys on this rig are wondering if they're going to have a job in four or five months," said Keith Jubb, the vessel's captain and a 32-year drilling veteran.
Salazar's flight to the Development Driller II this month was in many ways a dramatization of the challenges facing the Obama administration as it responds to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
The administration, including the Cabinet secretary the president has thrust to the forefront, must find ways to stop the leak, clean up millions of gallons of crude and take steps to reassure the public it won't happen again. But the means it has chosen, a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling, risks the fiscal health of the offshore oil industry that sustains much of the Gulf Coast economy.
It is in some ways typical territory for Salazar. As Colorado's attorney general, a U.S. senator and now Interior secretary, Salazar has sought out the sort of compromises that rarely leave anyone completely happy.
Since taking over Interior, the 55-year-old native of Colorado's San Luis Valley has elbowed his way into some of President Obama's highest-profile initiatives, some outside the traditional parameters of his job. Salazar steered an agency largely concerned with leasing and collecting royalties on federal deposits of oil and gas into the thick of the administration's renewable-energy push, seeding solar projects on federal land and wind farms in federal waters.
But all the effort, Salazar acknowledged, may be offset by an oil spill that threatens to consume his ambitious agenda and perhaps cost his job.
"With respect to our safety regulations and the standards," Salazar said, "we should have done more."
On the deck of the rig, where workers are drilling one of the two relief wells that aim to reach BP's Mississippi Canyon 252 well so it can be plugged with cement, Salazar peppered his BP and Transocean hosts with questions: Are you confident you'll succeed? Do you have every resource you need? What happens in the event of a hurricane?
He also admonished Jubb, the captain: "Stay focused."
Conservative critics say Salazar has consistently attacked oil and gas jobs as secretary, rescinding some drilling leases and tightening environmental regulations onshore. "What he talks is a very decent, respectful game" to oil and gas companies, said Rep. Rob Bishop (R- Utah). "But the actions that have come out of his Department of Interior have been one blow after another blow."
Some environmentalists have their own criticism. The Center for Biological Diversity opposed Salazar's nomination in part because of his support for offshore drilling while he was a senator, and it has called for his resignation over the breakdowns in federal drilling oversight exposed since the spill.
As a senator, Salazar voted to allow expanded offshore drilling. As secretary, he canceled a sweeping drilling plan proposed by the George W. Bush administration and, at the behest of Obama, unveiled a new one that included new drilling off the Atlantic Coast and Alaska, and expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The administration has since canceled a lease sale off Virginia and frozen exploratory drilling off Alaska.
Supporters see power in his pragmatism. "He's working within the realm of the possible," said Mike Chiropolos, lands program director for Western Resource Advocates, a Colorado-based environmental group. "He's trying not to be so controversial that his president loses his reelection race."
When Salazar ran for Colorado's open Senate seat in 2004, he often complained that the Bush administration did not "have its hair on fire" about homeland security. After he left the drilling rig and headed in a car for the airport, Salazar was asked whether the Obama administration had its "hair on fire" about drilling safety before the Deepwater Horizon rig accident on April 20.
No, Salazar said. "I think we had our hair on fire with respect to changing the department…. For most people, I think it would take decades to accomplish what we did in the first year."
Salazar said he often thinks of the tens of thousands of drilling workers who may lose their jobs as a result of the moratorium. "But we are also committed to making sure that deep-water drilling will not move forward until we can assure ourselves and the American public that it can be done in a safe way," he said.
How much assurance, he was asked, is necessary to lift the moratorium? How sure do you need to be?
"I don't think you'll ever be able to quantify the percentage," he said. "But what you can make sure happens is you have the right standards and the right enforcement to maximize safety."
He jumped out of the car at the terminal and said goodbye. His flight wouldn't take off for two hours, he explained, but he had work to do in the meantime.