The Minerals Management Service, which is charged with regulating offshore oil drilling, was a deeply troubled agency when Barack Obama inherited it from George W. Bush. Top MMS officials had been caught drinking, doing drugs and even having sex with oil-industry contacts. More prosaically, they accepted gifts from industry representatives and did favors for them.
The cleanup had already begun in the last months of the Bush administration, but President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar still had their work cut out for them. Not only did they have to enforce ethics rules, they had to ensure responsible management of the offshore oil platforms that are a key part of the MMS portfolio, a huge contributor to the national economy, and a continuing environmental risk.
The problem was, Obama and Salazar were more interested in pursuing their vision of a clean energy future. Under Obama, the Minerals Management Service, driven by a strongly ideological commitment to green energy sources such as wind and solar power, chose to stress "renewables" while de-emphasizing the tough and dirty work of managing the nation's existing offshore oil wells.
"What they did essentially was divert the attention of the agency away from regulating offshore drilling and focus it on the expansion of offshore renewables," says one well-informed Republican House aide.
It started early in the new administration. Salazar's first departmentwide order, issued March 11, 2009, was to declare "facilitating the production, development, and delivery of renewable energy top priorities for the Department."
Salazar chose Elizabeth Birnbaum to head the MMS in large part because of her record of environmental and green-energy advocacy. "We have changed the direction of MMS," Salazar told the Senate last month, "by balancing its ocean energy portfolio to include offshore wind and renewable energy production." Given the considerable size of the existing offshore oil industry, "balancing" the MMS portfolio meant putting a heavy emphasis on new offshore wind projects. "They were more into renewables offshore than they were into oil and gas," says a GOP Senate aide who works in the area.
Birnbaum, who is so far the only Obama administration official to lose a job over the Gulf oil spill, spent an enormous amount of time working on the controversial Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts. After years of regulatory wrangling, it was approved April 29 -- nine days after the oil-rig explosion that set off the Gulf spill.
Birnbaum came in for heavy criticism of MMS' handling of the Deepwater Horizon/BP Gulf oil project. The general tone of the critique was that MMS had not paid enough attention to regulating such environmentally sensitive undertakings. What received less attention was why that attention wasn't paid, and that was because Interior and MMS were busy pushing offshore renewable energy projects.
Shortly after Birnbaum was fired, her defenders told the trade publication Environment and Energy Daily that "she had not been ordered to clean house at the scandal-stained agency, but to promote renewable energy." When Salazar paid half-hearted tribute to Birnbaum the day she left, all he could come up with was that she had helped Interior deal with "the very difficult issues on standing up offshore wind in the Atlantic."
Wind, not oil, was the MMS offshore energy priority. Even when MMS addressed oil industry problems, it seemed only half interested. For example, on June 17, 2009, MMS began a procedure for coming up with new rules that would "require operators to develop and implement a safety and environmental management system for their oil and gas operations on the Outer Continental Shelf." Nothing came of it.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were fighting the last war. After the sex, drugs and influence scandal that rocked MMS in September 2008, senators and representatives came up with plans to reform the agency. They proposed to turn the director of MMS -- currently appointed by the secretary of the interior with no input from Congress -- into a position nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Other proposals involved cleaning up the way MMS handles the enormous amounts of revenue it collects from oil companies.
All were good ideas and would have improved MMS had they been enacted. But they would not have addressed the problems that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And they would not have awakened an administration that, dazzled by the dream of renewable energy, neglected the dull but crucial work of keeping watch over the nation's offshore oil industry.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com ExaminerPolitics.com