Move Resource Regulation Out of the Department of the Interior

Perhaps we turned a corner today. There is a chance that the worst environmental disaster in American history may have gotten a little better, or at least, less bad:
  • The head of the Minerals Management Service, the agency that regulates oil drilling, resigned.
  • President Obama accepted responsibility for the disaster and acknowledged that he put too much faith in corporate assurances about the safety of off-shore drilling.
  • New off-shore drilling efforts were once again halted and moves were made to strengthen regulatory oversight.
  • BP has not yet capped the leak, but seems to be getting closer to stopping the damage.

By all indications the President's views on off-shore drilling and the public's support for drilling have changed dramatically. According to USA TODAY's Susan Page:

"Now, a majority say protection of the environment should be given priority, 'even at the risk of limiting energy supplies.' The 55%-39% divide on that question was a reversal of American views in March, before the April 20 explosion sent crude oil spewing into the gulf. Then, by 50%-43% Americans said development U.S. energy supplies should be given priority, 'even if the environment suffers to some extent.'"

The President's May 27th press conference was an effort to demonstrate his seriousness of purpose and his concern about the leak. There is little question that the federal government has finally started to get serious. The bad news is that it took a very long time to get to this point. The good news is that both the President and the public now see the high level of environmental risk involved in our current energy policy.

My prediction is that the negative perception among the public will continue to grow. People are saddened, angry and confused about the size and duration of this leak. They do not understand why we have the technical capacity to dig these deep wells but do not know how to prevent them from leaking. There is a deep and growing frustration with many of our major institutions. The finance industry and the energy industry are deeply mistrusted. Government is also mistrusted. The government deserves and has been given low marks for its regulation of off-shore drilling and for its supervision of the clean-up efforts.

The President is both an individual, Mr. Obama, and an institution, the presidency. President Obama benefits from our perception that he is a man who really cares about the environment. Any doubt about his need to respond was laid to rest when he mentioned that his daughter Malia has added her voice to the chorus of concerned environmentalists pushing for action.

In his press conference on May 27, President Obama reinforced a point I raised on May 14 when I noted that "The Department of Interior is too compromised by its relationship with the energy industry to [regulate it ]...and so another agency must be given the job of developing and overseeing the formulation and implementation of a serious system of regulation." The President observed that:

"...The oil industry's cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship with government regulators meant little or no regulation at all. When Secretary Salazar took office, he found a Minerals and Management Service that has been plagued by corruption for years. This was the agency charged with not only providing permits but also enforcing laws governing oil drilling. And the corruption was underscored by a recent inspector general's report that covered activity which occurred prior to 2007, a report that can only be described as appalling. And Secretary Salazar immediately took steps to clean up that corruption. But this oil spill has made clear that more reforms are needed. For years there's been a scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them. That's why we've decided to separate the people who permit the drilling from those who regulate and ensure the safety of the drilling."

Unfortunately, an internal reorganization of the Interior Department is not enough. As I wrote on May 14: "Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently decided to split the Mining Service into two parts- separating staff that regulate safety from those that collect royalties for drilling on federal property. Unfortunately, both divisions will continue to report to the Department of Interior, an agency infamous for selling natural resources to the highest bidder."

The problem is the Department of Interior itself. The political pressure on the President over this spill is far from over. The pressure to remove Secretary Salazar will only grow every hour the leak and the clean-up continues. An enhanced capacity at the federal level is desperately needed to police all of our resource extraction industries. Our increasingly crowded planet continues to need resources to fuel all aspects of our economy. If we are to extract these resources with the least possible environmental impact, we will need to do a better job of managing and regulating these businesses. This will cost time and money and will impact our economy. But it will be much cheaper than the cost of cleaning up after catastrophes like the Gulf oil spill.