10 ways MMS makes FEMA look good
1. You got a problem with paper towels? One big reason the means of cleaning up oil spills have barely changed since the Exxon Valdez spill is that the Minerals Management Service’s budget for oil-spill research has been stuck at roughly $6 million a year since 1990. That’s one-tenth of a penny for every dollar MMS has collected in royalties from oil companies for offshore drilling rights over the same period. In real numbers, that’s $129 million spent on research over 20 years while $107 billion was collected. Almost two-thirds of what MMS spends on research goes to maintaining a wave pool in New Jersey where it tests cleanup equipment. The Houston Chronicle has more.
2. What’s $10 billion among friends? In January 2007, the head of MMS, a former energy exploration executive from Wyoming named Rejane “Johnnie” Burton, came under fire from the Interior Department’s inspector general for ignoring or not addressing a leasing error that could have let oil companies avoid paying up to $10 billion in royalties. The inspector general described it as a “jaw-dropping example of bureaucratic bungling.” Burton resigned four months later. See the New York Times story.
3. They aim to please. Noting an annual savings of $340,000 per oil rig, the MMS in 1998 cut in half the number of pressure tests on valves of blowout preventers. An industry executive praised the “flexibility” of MMS regulators. The blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon rig failed. Follow the AP’s investigation.
4. Wonks just gotta have fun. In September 2008, the Interior Department’s inspector general delivered reports to Congress detailing a sex and cocaine scandal within MMS as well as numerous cases of employees getting gifts from energy companies, including golf and ski trips and even a paintball outing. He characterized the agency as having “a culture of ethical failure.” Get the lowdown from The New York Times.
5. Now you see us, now you don’t. During the past five years, MMS became increasingly lax about making monthly safety inspections of the Deepwater Horizon rig. Which explains why, since January 2005, inspectors had issued just one minor infraction for the rig. And that helps explain why last year MMS was able to single out the Deepwater well as an industry model for safety. See the AP’s report.
6. Ooooops. Last year, MMS gave BP an exemption from doing an environmental impact analysis on the Deepwater Horizon because a massive oil spill was considered unlikely. In fact, the agency over the past year has routinely issued drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico without obtaining federal permits related to potential environmental threats. Read about it in The Washington Post.
7. Scientists are such drama queens. MMS routinely overruled its staff biologists and engineers who raised concerns about the safety and the environmental impact of certain drilling proposals in the Gulf and in Alaska, according to a half-dozen current and former agency scientists. Those scientists said they were also regularly pressured by agency officials to change the findings of their internal studies if they predicted that an accident was likely to occur or if wildlife might be harmed. See the New York Times article.
8. Details, details. Recently, an MMS engineer who gave BP the go-ahead to drill an exploratory well under the Deepwater Horizon rig admitted he never got assurance from the firm that a last-ditch mechanism at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico would be able to slice through its drill pipe to shut off the well in an emergency. Get the full story from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
9. But they gave their hand such a slap. MMS red-flagged potential violations of government safety standards in five out of 20 accident investigations it completed at BP offshore operations since 2005, including rigs and platforms. But only one incident resulted in a fine, according to a Houston Chronicle investigation.
10. You be safe now, okay? MMS apparently followed a pattern of setting broad safety goals for offshore drilling, but largely leaving it up to the oil companies to decide how — and whether — to meet them. The Wall Street Journal has the details.