Watching Government: Congress goes after MMS

May 24, 2010
Congress may feel helpless in trying to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But it's ready to go after the US Minerals Management Service.

Congress may feel helpless in trying to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. But it's ready to go after the US Minerals Management Service.

US Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said on May 17 he was disappointed that US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and MMS officials were not available for the committee's hearing on responses to the spill following the Apr. 20 rig accident in the gulf.

Basically, said Lieberman, he wondered if government regulators relied too heavily on oil company expertise. "Almost 10 years ago, in December 2000, BP [PLC] filed only a regional response plan, and MMS accepted it without asking for more," he said. "Should the government have sought a spill response plan for each well instead?"

Susan M. Collins (R-Me.), the committee's ranking minority member, added, "MMS has the responsibility for reviewing and approving response plans for drilling conducted on offshore rigs like the Deepwater Horizon. We need to explore what level of preparedness MMS requires of somebody seeking to drill in this hazardous environment."

These observations were mild compared with those of some Democrats and a few Republicans.

'Revolving door'

US House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Edolphous Towns (D-NY) said on May 14 that he is interested in what he termed "revolving door" issues, conflicts of interest within MMS, and its apparent lack of offshore rig oversight. He also sees what he considers an institutional conflict of interest that may have emphasized collecting royalties over ensuring safety because nearly half the agency's annual budget comes from fees and rentals.

Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.), the committee's ranking minority member, said that President Barack Obama's call to reform MMS "acknowledged what has been obvious but ignored for many years: MMS has been an agency in crisis for the better part of the past three administrations."

Employees defended

The agency's few defenders have emphasized that MMS's employees are not the problem. Salazar disputed allegations that MMS has not aggressively enforced existing regulations as he announced on May 11 that the agency's safety and environmental enforcement duties will be separated from its leasing, permitting, and royalty collection activities.

Elmer P. Danenberger III, who retired as chief of MMS's offshore regulatory program in January, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on May 11 he was disappointed at some media statements directed at his former colleagues.

"Without hesitation, I can tell you that MMS regulatory personnel—inspectors, engineers, scientists, and others—are 100% committed to their safety and pollution prevention mission," he said.

"While a critical review of the entire offshore regulatory regime is necessary and appropriate, unsubstantiated accusations and personal attacks are not," he said.

More Oil & Gas Journal Current Issue Articles
More Oil & Gas Journal Archives Issue Articles
View Oil and Gas Articles on