While much of the focus has been on the failures of BP and the o ther private companies involved in the April 20 oil rig explosion, it also has become clear that the federal Minerals Management Service has been a terrible regulator. Even as the struggle continues to stop the spill and the potential for environmental damage escalates, the Obama administration must move forcefully to ensure stronger federal oversight of offshore drilling.
BP appears to be making marginal progress in siphoning off some of the oil since engineers placed a milelong tube into the damaged undersea pipe. But researchers Monday feared the oil was near or had entered the powerful loop current, which would carry it south to the Florida Keys before moving counter-clockwise up the Atlantic Coast of Florida. That could be devastating for the fragile coral reefs and the state's tourism industry, and BP's pledge to give Florida $25 million for tourism ads is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential damage.
It did not have to come to this. BP never should have been allowed to drill without having a responsible response plan for such a disaster, and the government's permitting process was anything but aggressive. The New York Times reported last week that MMS routinely ignored legal considerations over the impact that drilling had on endangered species. The agency allowed unsafe drilling to continue even after discovering problems with rigging procedures.
In some cases, companies failed to provide the required schematics of their rigs to the government. Staff scientists told the New York Times that their concerns for even minor spills were routinely buried by agency superiors. Yet despite the White House's halt of new drilling, the newspaper learned that an official at the agency had approved more gulf drilling permits as the sunken rig, Deepwater Horizon, spewed oil.
The government agency that regulates offshore drilling regulated very little. The MMS changed its rules in 2008, allowing BP to avoid filing a plan for controlling a major blowout — the very disaster still unfolding. The Associated Press reported Monday that the MMS failed to comply with its own inspection regimen for the rig. The number of inspections of the Deepwater Horizon over the past five years was at least 25 percent short of what MMS called for in its own policy. And in a telling exchange during a safety investigation last week, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen asked MMS field supervisor Michael Saucier whether the blowout preventers were designed and built to industry standard, and "installed by the industry with no government witnessing or oversight of the construction or installation. Is that correct?"
"That is correct," Saucier replied.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees the MMS, was working before the BP rig disaster to clean up the minerals agency and announced more reforms Monday. He has proposed breaking the agency in two, splitting its royalty collection operations from its regulatory functions. That is logical, but it will be window dressing if the government still enables the industry to self-police.
The administration needs to examine what MMS needs in terms of authority and staffing to better ensure the safety of offshore rigs. There is reason to question whether Deepwater Horizon should have been allowed to operate at that site — and whether more vigilance by regulators after it began operating could have prevented this disaster. The regulatory system is full of holes, and Americans will be paying the price for a long time.