Capping an agency

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

It should have come as no surprise to learn that inspectors for the federal Minerals Management Service accepted meals and gifts from the companies whose work they were overseeing in the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn't the first evidence that the agency was out of control. Less than two years ago, a report revealed that employees at the Denver office were engaging in sex and using drugs with energy company representatives in addition to accepting gifts from them - all while overseeing billions of dollars worth of contracts.

The agency has conflict of interest written into its very job description: It collects royalties for mineral leases at the same time that it recommends which leases should be granted, and then oversees the safety and environmental soundness of the projects. Its position on new arctic oil exploration leases - suspended Thursday by President Obama - was evidence enough that the Minerals Management Service had lost its sense of mission. The agency never studied what would happen in the case of a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic because it assumed the chances of such a thing happening were too remote. That's the same decision it made on BP's Deepwater Horizon project.

As we wait to see whether the "top kill" tactic finally caps the disastrous spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama is at least making the right start on reining in the MMS by splitting its duties so that royalty collection is separate from regulatory and inspection authority. Even the ouster of Director S. Elizabeth Birnbaum will help. Birnbaum, a recent appointee, did not bring about the no-boundaries culture and was there too short a time to turn it around, but the administration was right to send a clear signal that changes at the agency will be immediate and severe.

Firing a couple of officials and rearranging duties will not be sufficient. MMS inspectors should be paired with better watchdogs, including staff from the Environmental Protection Agency, when deciding on mineral leases and inspecting ongoing operations. Investigations into wrongdoing by MMS must be expanded and continuous, with consequences for employees who fail in their duties. In addition to misdeeds before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the public deserves to know what sort of oversight the agency - and the Obama administration - exerted over the efforts to cap the spill. Obama didn't create a rogue agency, but he must take charge of overhauling it completely and quickly.



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