Commentary: MMS still hasn't gotten the Gulf spill's message

The Anchorage Daily NewsJune 7, 2010 

Lest there be any remaining doubt, the ever-growing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a seminal catastrophe. It is transforming the way Americans view offshore oil exploration, particularly drilling for oil at depths thousands of feet below the sea.

Unfortunately, this sea change hasn't yet extended to the U.S. Department of Interior and its Minerals Management Service. As Shashank Bengali of McClatchy's Washington Bureau reported last Thursday, the MMS this week was prepared to let oil firms go ahead with 31 deep-water drilling plans for the Gulf of Mexico, nearly half of which the agency had approved since the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

But then Bengali pointed out to them the results of a McClatchy review of these plans: All of them downplayed the risk of spills to marine life and fisheries, just as BP did when it received its permit for the Deepwater Horizon.

Suddenly, things changed. Late Wednesday, after McClatchy's inquiries, the Bureau of Land Management (which is over the MMS) announced it had ordered oil companies to overhaul and resubmit previously approved plans.

It's encouraging the Obama administration wants to toughen safety standards for new deep-water rigs; we await details to see if these standards are truly adequate. It is also disappointing the Interior Department didn't immediately strengthen such standards after April 20. The lag time only adds to the perception that Obama is being reactive instead of proactive.

Obama says he wants to end the "cozy relationship" that exists between MMS regulators and the oil industry, and last week, Elizabeth Birnbaum, director of the MMS, became the sacrificial lamb for this cause.

Despite her resignation, further disinfectant may be needed. Particularly curious is the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Sylvia V. Baca. Baca worked in the Clinton administration, then worked for eight years at BP before coming back to Interior, where she now oversees the MMS.

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