It's understandable that relatively scant attention is being paid this week to the latest scathing report about the Minerals Management Service. Most people tend to nod off at the mere mention of any bureaucratic government entity, especially one with a name like "Minerals Management Service."
But the MMS happens to be the federal Interior Department office that is supposed to oversee oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, to act (or at least give the pretense of acting) as a watchdog for the public, to ensure that the oil companies make their money without despoiling the environment. The problem is, the federal watchdog has long been an industry doormat. MMS has long allowed the people who rape our natural resources to police themselves - and now (big surprise!) we're reaping the whirlwind. And it's a bipartisan failure.
The latest report by Interior's inspector general reads almost as a satire of capitalism run rampant. For instance, during the years between 2005 and 2007, there was the little problem of "inspection report falsification." MMS watchdogs didn't conduct their own inspections; they simply let the oil-drillers fill out the inspection reports. The oil-drillers praised their own work in pencil, and the regulators traced it over in ink. That made life easier for the regulators, especially the guy in a Gulf regional office who was sometimes high on crystal meth.
The pencil-and-ink routine also kept things chummy for the MMS regulators who were routinely on the take. According to the IG report, they were willing recipients of Big Oil's largess - gifts, tickets, hunting trips, fishing trips, job opportunities. The regulators were also fond of swapping pornographic emails with the people they were supposed to regulate.
The sex theme is hardly new; a previous Interior Department report, back in September 2008, found that the MMS was literally in bed with the oil industry. As the IG stated, several MMS officials in the Denver office "had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives," often with the aid of cocaine and marijuana.
All told, MMS had fostered "a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" - all this, at a time when MMS regulators, in three reviews, repeatedly minimized the prospects for an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Actually, it was worse than that. Under federal law, offshore oil drillers are supposed to map out strategies for reducing their environmental impact - but MMS, during that three-year period, waived the federal rules for Gulf of Mexico projects roughly 750 times.
Let us note that the years covered in these reports - 2005 to 2007 - happened to coincide with the second term of the Bush administration. This should hardly come as a shock. Hewing to its conservative principles, the regime was infamous for the ways in which it demonstrated contempt for governance, and the MMS behavior was contempt on steroids. Fittingly, the guy who directed the MMS Gulf of Mexico office was awarded with a big promotion in 2007.
But it's a waste of time to heap full blame on the Bush team, because those people didn't know any better. It was hardwired in their DNA to celebrate the presumed glories of unrestrained market freedom; in the party's '08 parlance, "Drill, Baby, Drill." The Obama administration, on the other hand, was supposed to be different. The new brooms were brought to town for the express purpose of erasing the Bush stench and reestablishing the principle that responsible governance is actually a good thing.
And yet only now, in the wake of the BP oil spill, are we hearing talk of a concerted effort to overhaul MMS. Granted, it's tough to effect institutional change overnight, but it's a matter of record that MMS - on Obama's watch, in April '09 - exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico project from the environmental impact provisions that are required by longstanding federal law. MMS awarded BP a "categorical exclusion," which, in practice, meant that BP could conduct its drilling however it saw fit. (Update: The president, in his press conference, today, acknowledged that his administration had not moved fast enough to cleanse the MMS: "I take responsibility for that. There wasn't sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place.")
There's no silver-bullet evidence that MMS' legendary laxity led to the BP explosion, but it's abundantly clear that the MMS culture has given the company, and its competitors, free rein; in fact, MMS has reportedly issued at least 17 new drilling permits since the BP disaster began. And BP itself has been trying to loosen the rules even further. On the eve of the explosion last month, it was lobbying the Obama White House for more "categorical exclusions," because, in its own inimitable words, it wanted to "avoid unnecessary paperwork and time delays."
So let's broadly stipulate that the abject failure to protect the Gulf of Mexico, and the way of life at its shores, has been notoriously bipartisan. The answer isn't "small" government per se, or no government at all. The answer isn't "big" government, either. The answer is a sensible government that actually works to protect our quality of life. Can we at least reach consensus on that?