By Maryann Palazzolo
Intern, Disaster Accountability Project
(Maryann attends Warren Wilson College, Environmental Studies Major, Class of 2011)
For years, the former Minerals Management Service (MMS) in the Department of Interior, that oversees offshore drilling, has been criticized for the corrupt activities of its employees, such as illegal drug use, partaking in sex scandals, and accepting gifts offered by oil and gas companies. The lack of oversight by MMS of the Deepwater Horizon rig led to a preventable disaster. MMS was in need of reform, regardless of the oil spill, and all of its activities must be examined and addressed as its replacement agency is created.
Of all the MMS scandals, the BP oil spill has proved to be the most harmful – so far. The lives, species, industries, locales, and environments impacted should not be devastated in vain. Acknowledging the failed agency, in his Oval Office address, President Obama said, “one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling.”
On June 18, 2010, the agency took the new name, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE or BOE for short) and a new director, Michael Bromwich. Bromwich is an established watchdog with experience investigating FBI misconduct as inspector general for the Department of Justice.
The change also carries a symbolic definition for which the new organization hopes to stand. Bromwich recently told Congress, “Regulation and enforcement have been added to the title of the agency because those elements, I think, by consensus have been lacking in the approach of the agency.”
While the BOE has almost been given a clean slate with a new name and director, proper structural and institutional changes are needed to sustain real change. Reforming this agency will require tough questions and a deep analysis of the status-quo. Bromwich acknowledges the need for larger reform, and he hopes the name change will be “the first step in a series of more substantive and meaningful changes.”
As a first step towards reform, the new agency accounts for the conflicting missions that doomed MMS. The BOEMRE is comprised of three separate entities: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Office of Natural Resource Revenue. In President Obama’s words, the goal for the new agency to is to “build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog — not its partner.”
Will BOEMRE function as a solution to the corrupt behavior of MMS or is the new agency a temporary band-aid for an on-going dysfunctional relationship between corporations and regulatory agencies?
Some are calling for transparency within the new regulatory agency, in addition to widespread calls for transparency and public accountability from the oil and gas industries.
The Sunlight Foundation’s blog urged the new leadership to “post the documents and data online from the old MMS. Contingency plans, leases, Development and Production Plans, inspection reports, ethics waivers, and other essential information should be affirmatively posted online for everyone to see. MMS’s failures should be examined, scrutinized, and used to propel real reform within the new agency.”
In his testimony at an Energy and Natural Source Committee hearing, Senator Udal proposed legislation that would require the Department of Energy to publish annual updates of its programs’ work and outline recommendations for the implementation of research and findings. This would allow the public, including scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs the opportunity to develop new technology based on this information. This kind of honest transparency is beneficial to many and it improves oversight, empowers citizens, helps enhance accountability among industries and regulatory agencies, and advances technology.
Other are urging less radical change. In testimony regarding MMS reorganization, Dr. David H. Welch, engineer and President of Stone Energy Corporation, said, “Congress will hopefully examine the safety record of the last forty years before making wholesale changes. I believe that with a few additional requirements such as independent verifications of blow-out preventers and safety system functions, plus increasing the number of inspectors will significantly reduce the likelihood of a future disaster.”
Our reliance on oil as a source of energy must also be addressed.
While making reforms, the Department of Energy should consider pushing for cleaner, safer energy solutions. President Obama, in his Oval Office speech, addressed the problems with America’s dependence on oil: “no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk. After all, oil is a finite resource.”
Senators Tom Carper and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) expressed concern that if offshore wind remains under the jurisdiction of BOEMRE, the development of an offshore clean energy plan for the United States could be compromised. Conflicts of interest between the oil and gas industry and offshore wind companies could interfere with progress developing a renewable energy plan.
In their letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, they wrote:
“While BOEMRE is focused on the critical task of transforming itself into a more effective, transparent regulator, the progress the Department has made in promoting offshore wind must continue. Offshore wind farms alone represent a significant and rapidly growing source of emissions-free electrical power for our constituents and recent Department of Interior/U.S. Department of Energy reports confirm that winds off the coasts of the United States are a promising source of clean, renewable electrical power.”