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Gulf oil spill: Did Big Oil run roughshod over regulators?

Why didn't the US Minerals Management Service require that Big Oil install secondary blowout preventers on oil rigs, as other countries have? Congress is investigating this and other issues.

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Official documents show that pushback from the oil industry resulted in easing of requirements for new technologies to prevent the kind of blowout that led to the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and ensuing leak of at least 5,000 barrels of oil a day, and possibly much more, into the Gulf of Mexico. Pushback from BP and others against installing a new kind of acoustic blowout preventer succeeded. The Minerals Management Service declined to make them mandatory, as other oil-producing nations have.

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Moreover, a safety document from the Minerals Management Service 10 years ago raised the alarm about the potential for catastrophic spills, which could be alleviated by requiring backup and secondary blowout preventers for deepwater drilling. But the MMS didn't require any such system, leaving it to oil companies to decide what was best.

Scandal at the MMS

How MMS regulates the oil industry came under intense scrutiny in 2008 by then Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney, who released a blistering account of MMS employees engaging in illegal moonlighting, drug use, and even sex with oil company representatives in a scandal over royalty payments by Big Oil.

When one female agency employee – one of the "MMS chicks," as some Shell employees knew them – insisted that romantic liaisons with a Shell employee shouldn't require that she recuse herself from dealing with the company, Mr. Devaney shot back, "Sexual relationships with prohibited sources cannot, by definition, be arms-length."

In a call for an investigation into potential regulatory laxness or missteps by MMS and the Interior Department, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida wrote this week to Interior's Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall: "I ask that you determine in your investigation the extent to which the oil and natural gas industry exercised influence in the agency's rulemaking process."

That request is made even more dramatic by the fact that BP, which has recently championed a "green" campaign, has one of Big Oil's worst US safety records. It had to pay record fines for the 2005 Texas City Refinery accident, and investigators found the company had taken shortcuts that led to a major pipeline leak in Alaska that same year. Last week, the White House canceled an event where BP was scheduled to be given a government safety award.

The company's worst-case scenario for a spill at the Deepwater Horizon site, as reported to MMS, predicted it would take 10 days to cap the well. Experts say it may now take three months.

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