Ever hear of the term “regulatory capture?”
It was coined to apply to agencies such as the federal Minerals Management Service, created in 1982 to oversee oil and mining on federal property, including offshore drilling. Over time, MMS became captive to the industries it was supposed to regulate, serving as an advocate for industry interests and an apologist for its excesses and repeatedly siding with the industry over the taxpayer on financial issues. With its lax enforcement, it made agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission seem like bulldogs by comparison.
Those problems peaked during the Bush administration, when top Interior Department officials ignored repeated reports from the Government Accountability Office warning that the agency was giving sweetheart deals to industry, losing hundreds of millions of dollars that ought to be going to the federal treasury. Later, investigations proved that agency officials had been accepting lucrative gifts from oil companies, and that “a culture of ethical failure” permeated MMS.
The Obama administration cleaned up some of that mess, for example by ending the program that had cost taxpayers so much money. But in light of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it clearly did not act aggressively enough to reverse the agency’s pro-industry bias on questions of environmental protection and safety.
The federal agency responsible for regulating offshore oil drilling repeatedly ignored warnings from government scientists about environmental risks in its push to approve energy exploration activities quickly, according to numerous documents and interviews.
Minerals Management Service officials, who receive cash bonuses for meeting federal deadlines on leasing offshore oil and gas exploration, frequently altered their own documents and bypassed legal requirements aimed at ensuring drilling does not imperil the marine environment, the documents show.
This has dramatically weakened the scientific checks on offshore drilling that were established under landmark laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, according to those who have worked with MMS, which is part of the Interior Department…
MMS officials also ignored the advice of its staff experts. In 2006, then-MMS biologist Jeff Childs provided a detailed analysis of how the Exxon Valdez spill had harmed generations of fish in Prince William Sound, and how a future spill could do the same in the Beaufort Sea. But Childs’s conclusion that “a large oil spill . . . is likely to result in significant adverse effects on local [fish] populations requiring three or more generations to recover” would have forced MMS to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement before auctioning off a lease there.
“I have concerns about Jeff’s analysis and will not insert it into the [Environmental Assessment] being sent to HQ at this time,” wrote Deborah Cranswick, chief of the environmental assessment section at MMS, in a June 23 e-mail to her Alaska colleagues. “I believe that Regional management needs to review it first because Jeff has concluded new significant impacts from oil spills. This will trigger an EIS — and thus delay the lease for at least a year.”
Six days later, Paul Stang, Alaska MMS regional supervisor for leasing and the environment, sent a hand-written note to Childs saying, “As you know, a conclusion of significance under NEPA means an EIS and delay in sale 202. That would, as you can imagine, not go over well with HQ and others.”
According to the Post, “this pattern of dismissing biologists’ input has continued under the Obama administration.”
Sadly, that doesn’t surprise me. Changing an ingrained culture is difficult, and I doubt the administration made it the priority it clearly deserved to be. Given the tenor of the times, cracking down on oil and gas drilling on behalf of environmental concerns would have provoked howls of outrage, with the loudest howls no doubt coming from many of those who now criticize the administration for failing to protect the Gulf. But that doesn’t excuse the inaction in any way.