Last week, execs from BP, Transocean, and Halliburton took their Capitol Hill beatdown.  This week, federal regulators will be led into the ring.  With Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar at the front of the line, they’ll appear before three Senate committees tomorrow and then a House committee on Wednesday, at which members of Congress can be expected to express equal measures of shock, dismay, and disgust.

The bull’s-eye will be on Minerals Management Service (MMS), the Interior Department agency that’s responsible for overseeing offshore drilling but has developed more of a reputation for its staffers deferring to and partying with its oil industry buds.  

AP’s Justin Pritchard reveals the latest example of MMS’s diddling.  During the past five years, the agency became increasingly lax about making monthly safety inspections of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded.  Which explains why since January 2005 inspectors had issued just one minor infraction for the rig. Which explains why last year MMS was able to single out the Deepwater well as an industry model for safety. 

A case of Bush reflux

One person who won’t be anywhere near Washington this week but deserves to take heat for the MMS mess is none other than George W. Bush, says Matthew Yglesias, writing for The Daily Beast.  The MMS became a poster child for the Bush policy of hands-off regulation, or as Yglesias puts it:

[The MMS developed] a culture of indifference to the substantive missions of government agencies. This, of course, was the very essence of the Bush administration approach to government. When a regulator could be staffed by shills for the industry it was supposed to oversee, it was. When no industry particularly wanted to own an agency, like FEMA, it was handed over to a random crony. The results were disastrous and we’re still paying the price today.

Andrew Sullivan, in his Daily Dish blog for The Atlantic, fingers a different culprit.  “The BP disaster is not Obama’s Katrina; it’s Cheney’s delayed Katrina,” he writes. He also points out how enthusiastically Sarah Palin was waving her pom-poms for “Damn the permits, full speed ahead!” in a column for The National Review just weeks before Deepwater went down.  Among her comments:

What we need is action — action that results in the job growth and revenue that a robust drilling policy could provide.  And let’s not forget that while Interior Department bureaucrats continue to hold up actual offshore drilling from taking place, Russia is moving full steam ahead on Arctic drilling, and China, Russia, and Venezuela are buying leases off the coast of Cuba.

She hit the trifecta: China and Russia and Chavez, oh my!  Plus Cuba.

Enough , already

Not surprisingly, newspapers along the Gulf Coast have joined the MMS whipping party.  From an editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune

For South Louisianians, the Minerals Management lapses are painfully reminiscent of the shoddy work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that led to the deadly collapse of federal floodwalls during Katrina … It is already clear, though, that federal oversight was virtually nonexistent, and safety suffered because of it.

And from the Pensacola News Journal:   

To ensure that regulatory agencies didn’t regulate well, Bush stocked them with former industry officials and even lobbyists, who worked from inside to loosen regulation.

Finally, Reuters reports that the Center for Biological Diversity plans to sue the Interior Department for failing to get environmental permits for many offshore drilling activities, as required by two environmental laws, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

“The Department of the Interior and the Minerals Management Service are creating a lawless zone in the Gulf of Mexico when it comes to these environmental laws,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the center’s oceans director. “The oil companies really get to call the shots.”

For MMS, the party’s over.