As oil continues to erupt from the ocean floor, the federal Minerals Management Service is devolving into institutional upheaval.
On Thursday, director Liz Birnbaum joined Chris Oynes, the head of offshore drilling, as MMS's latest top official to resign in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. And on May 14, after congressional testimony that described the agency’s deference to the oil and gas industry, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to split MMS into two sections: one concentrated on collecting royalties from oil and gas companies and another focused on enforcement of safety regulations.
The MMS, an Interior Department division charged with managing offshore drilling leases, is also the target of a whistleblower lawsuit filed in federal court in Houston by a Washington, D.C., conservation group charging that the agency failed to ensure another BP offshore rig has the safety documentation required under law. At a press conference in the Gulf on Thursday, President Obama excoriated “the scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them.”
But former MMS director Barry Williamson — who led the division during the George H.W. Bush administration and later served as a Texas Railroad Commissioner — says the focus should be on determining what happened at Deepwater Horizon rather than on prematurely laying blame. “It's more important now, as opposed to making general accusations [against MMS], to determine what happened,” says Williamson, who is now the campaign chairman for Republican David Porter's Railroad Commission campaign. “Finger-pointing doesn't help. What you have to figure out before you start firing people is what happened, why it happened, was it preventable. If it could have been prevented, whose job was it to prevent it, and did that person do his job?"
In 1989, four days into Williamson’s tenure, the Exxon Valdez crashed on the Alaska coast, bringing “a tremendous amount of attention,” he says, to a previously obscure government entity. Because of that, Williamson says he understands “what [MMS] is going through from a crisis management standpoint,” though he points out Valdez was “a transportation accident, not an offshore drilling accident."
Now that the oil is in the water, he says, there’s not much else MMS can do. But the first step the division should take, Williamson says, "is to lead an investigation."
It’s not news that the MMS has been a little too snug to the energy industry. Two years ago, an inspector general's report documented an agency culture that “appeared to be devoid of both the ethical standards and internal controls sufficient to protect the integrity of this vital revenue-producing program.” Some of the offenses: accepting gifts from oil and gas companies (including ski trips, paintball games, and tickets to a Toby Keith concert and a Houston Texans game), sexual relationships with industry representatives and drug and alcohol use at industry events.
Yet Williamson doubts that Salazar’s move to separate the divisions within MMS will do much to correct the problem of corruption. “You can argue it's all in the same government,” he says, “You can have divisions within MMS or you can kick it up and have divisions within the DOI — it's still the same people that's going to be doing the same things. … Someone's got be in charge. Either people are going to be honest and have integrity, or they're not."
Williamson also defends MMS’s record of regulating the industry. "Whether someone took someone to lunch sometime is neither here nor there,” he says. “Was there a failure of regulation? I don't know. There may not have been. Accidents happen sometimes. You can't prevent them. It's important to find out what happened before we start making all these allegations about an agency that's done a stellar job of helping keep the offshore safe for 40 years."