The Latest MMS Outrage – and Why Salazar’s “Restructuring” Plan Is Insufficient

The Minerals Management Service (or MMS) was born with an inherent conflict of interest.  It’s the agency we rely on to regulate offshore oil and gas development and make sure it’s safe for the environment – but it’s also the agency that rakes in the bucks from all of that oil and gas.  So when Secretary Salazar announced on Tuesday that he would “restructure” MMS – to put some daylight between the enforcement and business sides – that seemed like a good start.  Until some folks noticed that his plan keeps all of the agency’s regulatory and environmental compliance duties with the money counters.

The lack of any concrete step to improve regulation was inexplicable.  The Secretary’s announcement came amid a torrent of stories about MMS’ regulatory malfeasance: how the agency handed out categorical exclusions for drilling, parroted industry’s risk estimates, and took up the companies’ cudgel against control measures that would have shaved a micron of profit from their multi-billion-dollar bottom lines.  

The latest outrage, reported in today’s New York Times, is that neither MMS nor industry ever bothered to obtain mandatory permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for their industrialization of the Gulf.  Not a single permit for their thousands of wells or their tens of thousands of track-lines of airgun surveys – which significantly impact endangered whales.  These permits are important because they require measures that would have lowered the impact from all of these activities.

Here’s what the Times says about MMS’ record just since January 2009:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is responsible for protecting endangered species and marine mammals. It has said on repeated occasions that drilling in the gulf affects these animals, but the minerals agency since January 2009 has approved at least three huge lease sales, 103 seismic blasting projects and 346 drilling plans. Agency records also show that permission for those projects and plans was granted without getting the permits required under federal law.

And that awful record began long before Obama took the helm.  Here’s one of the government scientists the Times interviewed, who worked at MMS earlier in the decade:

Another biologist who left the agency in 2005 after more than five years and who now works as an industry consultant said that agency officials went out of their way to accommodate the oil and gas industry.

He said, for example, that seismic activity from drilling can have a devastating effect on mammals and fish, but that agency officials rarely enforced the regulations meant to limit those effects.

Based on my own years of advocacy, I can tell you that MMS never obtained a marine mammal permit for seismic surveys or any other activity in the Gulf, or compelled the oil companies to obtain one.  The companies decided they couldn’t be bothered.  And why should they since the Marine Mammal Protection Act lacks a so-called “citizen suit” provision, making it impossible for the public to enforce the law against them?  MMS let them carry on regardless.

And I can add that MMS hardly did any better with the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires agencies to “look before they leap” by thinking through the environmental consequences of their actions.  In 2004, MMS glibly concluded that “no significant impact” would result from all that seismic blasting and refused to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement – even after the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration insisted it was necessary.    

Which makes Secretary Salazar’s omission of regulation from Tuesday’s restructuring plan all the more disturbing.  By all accounts, MMS is an agency incapable of reforming itself.  Understating risk, suppressing science, and cutting corners on permitting are part of an agency culture that has transcended Democratic and Republican administrations.  Someone – Secretary Salazar, or President Obama, or Congress – is going to have to get tough, and soon.