WASHINGTON — Bob Graham is a magnet for crisis.
Florida's former governor and senator was already investigating the causes of the financial meltdown when the call came. President Barack Obama wanted him to lead the inquiry into the BP oil disaster.
"This is probably one of the most important environmental issues that the U.S. has faced maybe in my lifetime," Graham, 73, said in an interview. "To be asked to be part of this and to render an opinion as to both the past and the future is a humbling challenge."
The seven-member National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling will begin meeting in mid July. It has six months to present a report intended to serve as the authoritative word on the cause of the catastrophe and to make recommendations on how to avoid another one.
But those hoping it will lead to a permanent ban on offshore drilling may be misguided.
Obama is said to have privately told Graham, a Democrat, and co-chairman William K. Reilly, a Republican and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, that he wanted the panel to find ways to make drilling safer, not eliminate it, and to protect coastal communities.
"I don't think our charter is to abolish the offshore oil industry," Graham acknowledged.
His views toward the industry are well-known, a veteran of the antidrilling front in Florida. Graham kept up his opposition as Republican members of the Florida Legislature were pushing plans to bring rigs closer to the shore.
"Unfortunately this issue has been trivialized into phrases like 'drill, baby, drill,' and the real long-term consequences for our future generations have been largely ignored," he said during a speech in Sarasota in November.
The Wall Street Journal editorialized Tuesday that Obama's panel was the "antidrilling commission," saying "the news is that there's neither an oil nor drilling expert in the bunch. Instead he's loaded up on politicians and environmental activists."
The newspaper charged the White House with trying to use the commission to turn drilling into a partisan election issue. It noted that Graham has "fought drilling off Florida throughout his career."
The Journal said Reilly, EPA head under President George H.W. Bush, was best known as former president of the World Wildlife Fund, one of the biggest environmental lobbies. The newspaper did not note that Reilly is on leave from the board of ConocoPhillips, the oil giant.
Graham maintains he will put aside any bias, and views his role as akin to that of a juror, appraising the facts as they are drawn out in the coming months.
"I believe we have seven good people who know enough about the issues to develop informed opinions that are worthy of consideration of the public, the president and Congress," he said, "but who are objective and can give a nonconflicted set of recommendations."
A high-profile topic is the moratorium the president put on deepwater drilling until the panel files its report. A federal judge in New Orleans last week tossed the ban but the Obama administration has moved to appeal.
Graham said it was inappropriate to comment on the decision but added, "We've got lots on our plate beyond that question." Among them is studying the industry's failed safeguards, such as the so-called blowout preventer, and failure to keep current with technology.
The commission's first hearing will likely feature testimony from people affected by the oil, from fishermen to hotel owners and homeowners.
"I think they'll have a lot to add to our understanding of this tragedy," Graham said. He expects a half-dozen hearings over the next three or four months, as a staff begins the laborious investigative process.
Graham and Reilly have hired an executive director, Georgetown University environmental law expert Richard Lazarus, and are in the process of filling up to 40 staff positions. Obama has asked Congress for $15 million to fund the commission. On Wednesday, the House approved a bill granting the commission subpoena power.
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Graham, who served as governor from 1979 to 1986 and U.S. senator from 1987 to 2004, has never faded from public service and has become a go-to member for blue ribbon panels.
He is on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a board created in the wake of the economic collapse, and this year wrapped up work as chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, whose mandate was to build on the work of the 9/11 Commission.
The call to serve on the oil commission came from Carol Browner, a Floridian who served as head of the state's Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Lawton Chiles and is now Obama's top energy adviser.
Obama has taken criticism for a deliberative and at times slow response to the crisis, but Graham, who employs a similar thoughtful approach, defended him. He characterized the crisis as "raging but also slow moving in its impact" — circumstances that Graham said reminded him of the Mariel boatlift, the exodus of Cubans to Florida in 1980.
"The president's approach to issues in general is one of being very calm and reasoned and avoiding screaming and yelling as a substitute for clear analysis and action,'' he said. ''I admire the way he goes about his business."
Over the next six months, Graham will have to deliver the same clear analysis and action.
"The tragedy is enormous. The challenge is enormous," he said. "And the opportunity to make a positive contribution is also enormous."
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes. com.