Ken Salazar: Oil spill debacle sparks creation of Yet Another Government Agency

In the wake of the offshore rig explosion and massive oil spill threatening the Gulf Coast, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has announced a major shakeup of the Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for overseeing drilling safety and royalty collection -- a move that will add yet more alphabet soup to Interior's staggering array of subagencies.

Although his people are spinning this effort as "part of an ongoing agenda" and "the latest in a series of reforms" that the Secretary has launched since taking office, it's pretty clear this particular step is a direct reaction to the crisis that began when fire broke out on the Deepwater Horizon rig last month.

Still, that doesn't mean restructuring MMS isn't something Salazar has wanted to do for a long time; it just seems to take the political will that results from a major disaster to get anything done in the federal bureaucracy.

Among other measures, Salazar proposes to create a distinct safety and environmental enforcement agency that will oversee drilling operations. Carving out those functions from the business side of MMS, which has always been concerned with promoting drilling and maximizing revenue, makes some sense, particularly in light of the history of corruption and all-too-cozy relationships with energy companies within MMS.

For more on the tawdry sleepovers and "gifts" that seemed to be part of the deal among these so-called regulators, see our previous coverage of sex, drugs and lost revenue, retaliation against auditors who tried to enforce the law and Salazar's vows to clean up the agency.

But why stop there? The possibilities of splitting various Interior agencies, thus making them ever more "efficient," are endless. For example, the Bureau of Land Management has an equally conflicting mission, leasing public lands for oil and gas development, grazing and other uses while supposedly protecting the resource for future generations. How about a Bureau of Land Protection and a Bureau of Land Exploitation? They could duke it out at joint staff meetings once a week.

Actually, Salazar's plan has several points worth serious consideration, including expanded review of drilling plans and additional resources for federal inspectors who are supposed to see that the offshore platforms are operating properly. It's just a bit untimely that such measures are only getting their due now, while the Deepwater Horizon spill is still spewing into coastal waters.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast