A note to the White House political team – you probably shouldn’t leak that the President will “get really angry” about something 12 hours before he does, as it tends to blunt the impact and ruin the element of surprise. Nevertheless, the President used the bully pulpit today to express urgency and frustration about the crisis in the Gulf. And you do have to give him a little credit for turning that blame inward on his own Administration.
I have to say, though, I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle during the congressional hearings into this matter. You had executives of BP and Transocean and Halliburton falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else. The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn’t.
I understand that there are legal and financial issues involved, and a full investigation will tell us exactly what happened. But it is pretty clear that the system failed, and it failed badly. And for that, there is enough responsibility to go around. And all parties should be willing to accept it.
That includes, by the way, the federal government. For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill. It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies. That cannot and will not happen anymore. To borrow an old phrase, we will trust but we will verify.
The President said he would task his Interior Secretary to reform the completely negligent Minerals Management Service, beyond the already announced split of the royalty-collection task of the agency and the regulatory oversight task. He also reiterated his moratorium on new drilling permits until after the completion of a 30-day safety review. He vowed to “examine” the environmental review process for new drilling as well, though there were no details.
However, he did not renounce offshore oil drilling, though the word “offshore” was absent from his remarks on the subject:
Now, as I’ve said before, domestic oil drilling continues to be one part of an overall energy strategy that now includes more clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency than at any other time in our history. But it’s absolutely essential that going forward we put in place every necessary safeguard and protection so that a tragedy like this oil spill does not happen again. This is a responsibility that all of us share -– the oil companies share it; the manufacturers of this equipment share it; the agencies in the federal government in charge of oversight share that responsibility. I will not tolerate more finger pointing or irresponsibility.
Again, this was more a “message: I care” speech than anything, and we await follow-through of the actions already announced: the breakup and reform of the MMS, the legislation to aid the Gulf coast for bearing the consequences for a disaster they did not cause, raising the liability cap for all the corporations involved so they can compensate the victims, and once and for all shutting the flow of millions of gallons of toxic substances into the Gulf of Mexico.
UPDATE: The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has some good suggestions on how to fix the Minerals Management Service. From their statement:
“For years, the MMS has been crippled by its appalling coziness with industry and we welcome the additional scrutiny of the agency from the highest level of the executive branch,” said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian. ” We’ve been exposing the problems at the MMS for years and from what we’ve seen, this agency will need far more than a dispersal agent to remove the stains to its integrity.”
POGO hopes the president will tackle the problem head on, and separate the functions that create an inherent conflict of mission at the MMS.
“Secretary Salazar’s proposal to divide the agency in two marks a step in the right direction, but in order to create more substantive reform, the agency’s leasing and royalty collection functions also must be separated,” Brian said.
There are multiple conflicts of interest at the MMS. Not only should the regulatory and royalty collection roles be made separate, but so should the leasing. You shouldn’t have the same agency giving the leases and receiving the money from the corporations to which they give the leases.