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Regan Nelson’s Blog

Salazar's Efforts to Reorganize the MMS Must Go Further

Regan Nelson

Posted January 20, 2011

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Yesterday, Secretary Salazar announced the new agency structure that will be established in place of the now-defunct Minerals Management Service.  The announcement, while representative of significant reforms already underway at the Department of the Interior, still falls short of the changes called for by the National Oil Spill Commission.  Further changes are needed.

Let’s review.  Last May, shortly after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and subsequent Gulf oil disaster, Secretary Salazar announced that he would abolish the MMS, and isolate its three primary functions – revenue collection, planning and development, and safety and environmental enforcement – into three independent agencies.

Last October, the Office of Natural Resources Revenue was established.  Yesterday, Secretary Salazar outlined the two new bureaus that will oversee the remaining functions. 

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will oversee and carry-out all leasing functions – including developing the 5-year Leasing Program, conducting all environmental reviews, issuing leases and approving development plans.

Within BOEM, a new position will also be created – a Chief Environmental Officer – who we are told with have a significant role in setting the national agenda on where drilling does or does not occur.  This position will head the environmental review and science functions within BOEM, and will lead communications with and solicit input from other agencies that have a role in offshore energy decisions, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Energy. 

The establishment of a new Chief Environmental Officer is a step forward.  But there is a rub.  What the Commission calls for is a new environmental science division, led by a Chief Scientist, that has a separate line of reporting to the Assistant Secretary in charge of offshore drilling.[1]  Having a separate division headed by a Chief Scientist and giving a direct lifeline from the environmental science division to a higher authority protects science and the integrity of environmental reviews and gives science a more equal status to leasing.  In the past, leasing concerns were routinely put ahead of environmental protection concerns.  Thus, it is imperative there be an environmental science division that has direct report with higher authorities – to ensure that the suppression of science in decisions affecting our oceans, coasts and communities does not occur. 

The third new entity to emerge from MMS’ ashes is the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE – pronounced “bessy”).  Rounding out the three-way split of functions, this agency will house the regulators who inspect offshore facilities, and will be charged with enforcing all safety and environmental regulations governing offshore development.  Again, this is a good first step toward strengthening the protections we need to keep our workers and waters safe – but it does not achieve the essential reform recommended by the Oil Spill Commission.

As planned, the new BSEE would operate under the same assistant secretary who oversees leasing duties.  Secretary Salazar needs to go further to ensure that safety and environmental concerns are insulated from the kind of political pressure that has compromised this crucial mission in the past by creating an independent safety and environment authority that is not led by the same assistant secretary who oversees leasing.

The heart of needed reform is about ensuring independence of our regulators from the never-ending pressure to maximize leasing and development.  To truly establish independence, the existing lines of reporting must be changed – otherwise the reorganization amounts to little more than a reshuffling.  The Commission made clear what would be necessary to ensure that a new regulatory agency received the stature and independence necessary to truly reform government oversight – a director who is Senate-confirmed, who would serve for a five or six year term, and report directly to the Secretary of the Interior. Without this additional reform, it is not clear that the re-organization will accomplish its main goal of ensuring safety and environmental protection.        

The bipartisan Commission report released last week stated clearly that without fundamental reforms, we remain at risk of another disaster like the one still affecting the Gulf.  Secretary Salazar should be commended for his commitment to carry out reforms thus far – but he should heed the recommendations of the Commission and ensure that the re-organization underway achieves a true split in responsibilities and lines of reporting necessary to guard against conflicts of interest that led to the last disaster.  That is what is needed to protect our workers, waters and wildlife.


[1] National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling Final Report, pg. 259.

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