Imagine that the Treasury De- partment, the government entity which has the most to lose if General Motors and/or Chrysler fails, was also in charge of monitoring safety and fining car makers for transgressions, a job of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The conflict of interest would be apparent.
And yet, when it comes to drilling oil wells, just such a conflict has existed for almost 30 years, and the eventual result — a disaster such as we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico — was almost preordained.
The Minerals Management Service, which was established by executive order in 1982, is responsible for collecting the revenue generated by oil and gas drilling for the government and approving permits to drill the wells.
Whatever the intended purpose may have been in giving MMS dual and conflicting responsibilities, the effect has been an agency in which regulators became far too cozy with those they were supposed to be regulating, and drilling took precedence over protecting the environment.
The degree of complacency, mismanagement and corruption is coming under a microscope a bit late, following the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana, which killed 11 people and has poured as much as 40 million gallons of oil into the Gulf over the last month and a half.
There’s reason to believe MMS wasn’t even reading submissions from drilling companies before approving permits. How else to explain a BP environmental impact document submitted for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico that discussed the probable impact on walruses, seals, sea otters and sea lions? None of those creatures can be found in the Gulf or on its shores.
The same people who seemed oblivious to the realities of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico were apparently happy to accept BP’s calculations that the worst possible spill from a rig in the Gulf would be contained in 30 days and oilwould have only a 20 percent chance of reaching Louisiana’s shores. The states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have clear reason to disbelieve such optimistic predictions.
Clearly the culture of accommodation that evolved at MMS over a generation encouraged drillers to believe that little would stand in the way of issuance of a permit. Even in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster — which clearly demonstrates that no one, including the federal government or the Coast Guard — is equipped to respond quickly to a catastrophic failure a mile below the sea, the MMS has approved 20 more drilling plans.
The scope of MMS’s power must be limited, and the inherent conflict of interest between a revenue-producer and a safety overseer must be limited.
In a story in Denver Post, Tom Strickland, chief of staff to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar who is responsible for MMS, says this is “like the Challenger for the oil industry,” a pivotal moment for the MMS. But if Strickland is going to invoke the 1986 space shuttle disaster that shocked a nation, he might recall that 17 years after the Challenger exploded during takeoff, the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry. When catastrophe strikes, systemic changes are necessary and ongoing vigilance is required.