Yesterday POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian testified before the House Natural Resource Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources about the reorganization of the Minerals Management Service (MMS). Just about every reporter and every other person focusing on the Deepwater Horizon disaster was busy covering Energy and Commerce's firing-squad treatment of BP CEO Tony Hayward. The lack of attention on this hearing was disappointing—not just because Hey! POGO was testifying!—but because I think it's indicative of how the MMS became a little agency with a lot of responsibilities that largely escaped the kind of tough oversight that would force it to become effective. To whatever extent reporters think their job is to act as a watchdog for citizens—which means looking out for future and current problems, not just looking back and shaking your head—there should've been more people at the press table.
Though I didn't witness it in person, I will say that Representative Barton's (R-TX) since-rescinded apology to BP (that he doesn't want to "live in a country where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some kind of political pressure") is indicative of how many in Congress and the federal government have treated the oil industry: not just as government partners, but as the power players in the relationship that don’t need to be held accountable for their actions.
For those who are genuinely concerned about making sure that development of our natural resources is conducted responsibly, the Subcommittee's hearing was the one that mattered. In what has been a very partisan committee, an important bipartisan consensus has emerged: MMS is broken. But it's important to note that this conventional wisdom isn't new for most people who've bothered to pay attention to MMS. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), Interior's Inspector General (IG), and POGO all provided testimony based on many years of public reports that this is an agency with a broken culture struggling to maintain the technical expertise (and we'd underscore, the political will and intellectual confidence) to ensure that industry is complying with regulations. And in some cases, making sure they're at least calling industry on what's almost complete BS, like the claim that MORE THAN 100 percent of their production should be exempt from royalties because they were using more than they were harvesting for on-site operations. Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) hit the nail on the head when he said that it seems pretty clear that "MMS gave industry the keys to the kingdom."
POGO's testimony supported the intent of the reorganization to separate out MMS's conflicted missions, but focused primarily on the agency's broken culture due to the revolving door, dependence on industry, and lack of transparency. Some of the reactions to our testimony illuminate how this agency got into the shape that it did. Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) seemed to be very skeptical about implementing tougher revolving door regulations, asking Danielle:
- Whether we had a chart prescribing different cooling off periods for each position at MMS (usually about two years, and Danielle said something along the lines of "Frankly, for the Director of MMS, I'd be comfortable with a lifetime ban on going to work for the industries he was overseeing.");
- If she was uncomfortable with the fact that former MMS Director Randall Luthi used to be the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service. (Danielle said no, since we're concerned about when people have a financial interest. We had highlighted the fact that he was now the President of the National Oceans Industries Association as an "egregious" example of how bad things are at MMS.); and
- If we're concerned that this kind of revolving door prohibition would result in the heads of MMS not knowing anything about the industry they're regulating (Danielle pointed out that the technical expertise is needed at lower levels in the agency and for advisors, that the Director of MMS's skill set must largely be managerial, and that we've seen that those skills aren't so narrowly defined —a former Energy Department Deputy Secretary, for example, went on to a lucrative career heading a Telecommunications group—an industry that he had no part of at DOE).
Rep. Lummis’s questions represent common doubts about—and frankly, strawman arguments against—the feasibility of revolving door restrictions. Overall, the Subcommittee conducted an excellent hearing that should provide them with a lot of useful information as they mark up Chairman Nick Rahall's (D-WV) Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act of 2009 (H.R. 3534) to ensure that MMS and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have the tools they need to be effective inspectors, regulators, and collectors of royalties. Our fingers are crossed that Representative Bill Cassidy's (R-LA) agreement with POGO that more transparency is needed at MMS means that this will be part of the legislation when it's re-introduced.
-- Mandy Smithberger