Globe Editorial

Obama must get control of rogue oil regulators

May 20, 2010

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PRESIDENT OBAMA vastly understated the case last week when he said the Minerals Management Service has a “cozy relationship’’ with oil companies. The agency within the Interior Department, which approves offshore drilling requests, has routinely flouted federal requirements to seek impact assessments from environmental agencies before issuing permits. This flouting of the law began under the Bush administration, and Obama has failed to correct it.

On Obama’s watch, according to The New York Times, the minerals service approved nearly 450 drilling plans and seismic blasting projects without seeking reviews from agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Several final approval permits were granted this month, even though Interior Secretary Ken Salazar claimed that he’d stopped granting permits after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama has criticized the “ridiculous spectacle’’ of major drilling firms like BP, Transocean, and Halliburton blaming each other. But just as ridiculous is how his Interior Department kept rubber-stamping permits. The department was in such bad shape that its acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, wrote Salazar just three weeks ago to say that Interior “has never had, and currently operates without, a scientific integrity policy.’’

Few subagencies have operated with the reckless independence of the minerals service. It became a focus of scandal in the Bush era because employees in one division accepted lavish gifts and attended parties with representatives of companies they oversaw, then handed over drilling contracts. Though Salazar declared himself the “new sheriff in town’’ days after Obama’s inauguration, the minerals service exempted BP’s Deepwater Horizon operation from a required environmental impact analysis in April 2009, according to the Washington Post.

Throughout last year, scientists complained that environmental and safety concerns were being ignored, both for existing rigs and in assessing new drilling permits. But the warnings weren’t heeded. Even now, it’s not clear if the administration understands the seriousness of the problem. After proposing last week to divide the minerals service into two separate parts, Salazar came back yesterday with a plan to split it in three. But Salazar has also insisted there were only “a few bad apples’’ at the agency.

Meanwhile, Obama himself is sticking to his plan to expand offshore drilling. That plan should not be implemented until Salazar can convince Congress — and the nation — that the Minerals Management Service will conduct extensive safety assessments and allow outside environment reviews before approving any permits. The problem at the minerals service isn’t a few bad apples. It’s rotten to the core.

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