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05.14.10

It's Bush's Oil Spill

The GOP rushed to brand the Gulf Coast disaster "Obama's Katrina." But new reports make clear the Bush administration's lax attitude toward regulation deserves much of the blame.

Ever since the great oil price spike of 2008, conservatives have been riding a tide of pro-drilling sentiment to shore up their message on energy issues. Environmentalists had done a decent job in earlier years of framing their concerns about fossil-fuel use in part in terms of energy "independence" and "security," rhetoric that was turned on its head by efforts like Newt Gingrich's "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" slogan. The push was so successful that the Obama administration somewhat reluctantly came around to the pro-drilling viewpoint, just in time for the largest oil spill in human history to hit the Gulf of Mexico—pushing public support for drilling down for the first time in years. This left the hard-core drillers of the right like Gingrich and Karl Rove to grasp for the argument that the spill is somehow "Obama's Katrina"—a charge so absurd that even Fox News hosts won't buy it. Meanwhile, new revelations in Friday's New York Times reveal that something closer to the reverse is the truth—the Deepwater Horizon fiasco is yet another consequence of George W. Bush's corruption and incompetence.

The dysfunctional attitude of MMS managers reflected problems that were deeply ingrained under the previous administration.

The key to the puzzle is an obscure agency known as the Minerals Management Service, which manages energy resources on federal land and the outer continental shelf. The mission of the agency is supposed to be to ensure that these resources are used responsibly and that  taxpayers get a fair share of the revenue associated with their exploitation. But under the Bush administration, it, like so many agencies, was turned into a plaything of industry leading to numerous ecological catastrophes.

The key facts have been in the press, but the political implications and the timeline are still not well understood. For starters, as Juliet Eilperin reported, back on April 6, 2009, the MMS chose to give the Deepwater Horizon project a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act's requirement for a detailed examination of possible environmental impacts. What's more, as Ian Urbina reported in the Times Thursday, MMS also simply ignored warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and MMS' own scientists that the drilling represented a threat to endangered species. Specifically, a September 2009 letter from NOAA "accused the minerals agency of a pattern of understating the likelihood and potential consequences of a major spill in the Gulf and understating the frequency of spills that have already occurred there." Urbina reported that a half-dozen current or former MMS scientists told him that "managers at the agency have routinely overruled staff scientists whose findings highlight the environmental risks of drilling."

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View Our Gallery of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill
By 2009, of course, Barack Obama was already in the White House. But it takes time to staff an administration and take charge of an agency. Current MMS director Liz Birnbaum didn't take office until July 2009, months after the exclusion was granted. More to the point, the dysfunctional attitude of MMS managers reflected problems that were deeply ingrained under the previous administration.

Consider, for example, the fiasco of the Royalty in Kind program. The saga starts back in 1997 when, under Bill Clinton, the government cared about doing things properly. At this point in time, MMS responded to evidence that energy interests were underpaying royalties to the federal government by proposing a more stringent rule to collect Royalties in Value (RIV), i.e., money from drillers and miners. Industry didn't like that and countered instead with a proposal to pay Royalties in Kind (RIK), i.e., oil or gas that they thought would be cheaper. The Clinton administration agreed to an RIK pilot program, but soon found itself out of office. Then along came the Bush administration and Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, which was urged by the American Petroleum Institute to aggressively expand the program. Starting in 2003, the Government Accountability Office repeatedly issued criticisms of the RIK program on a nearly annual basis saying it lacked "clear strategic objectives linked to statutory requirements" and shouldn't be expanded.

But it was steadily expanded each and every year of the Bush administration because statutory requirements aside, RIK was great at achieving the president's objective of letting oil companies make more money. By September 2009, a new team was in charge and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the program would be terminated.

The RIK scam, of course, was not the cause of the oil spill any more than failure to consult NOAA about endangered species implications did the deed. Both incidents, however, reflect the existence of a culture of indifference to the substantive missions of government agencies. This, of course, was the very essence of the Bush administration approach to government. When a regulator could be staffed by shills for the industry it was supposed to oversee, it was. When no industry particularly wanted to own an agency, like FEMA, it was handed over to a random crony. The results were disastrous and we're still paying the price today.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.