Obama to sever ties between drilling cops and Big Oil
As oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration moves to break up the agency tasked with both collecting royalties and policing Big Oil.
Working hard to contain the political as well as the ecological damage of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Obama administration on Tuesday vowed to shake up the Interior Department agency responsible for policing Big Oil's deepwater drilling operations along America's continental shelf.Skip to next paragraph
As a number of Congressional probes into the April 20 Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico got underway Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a proposal to split the Minerals Management Service (MMS) in half, separating its policing function from its royalty-collection arm. Critics say there's always been a conflict of interest in having the same agency that collects $13 billion in royalties a year be responsible for inspecting rigs, enforcing safety rules, and probing skullduggery.
"I think what is driving a lot of moves toward tighter regulations is our trust has been violated, and when trust is breached or lost, it's hard to get it back," says Duane Gill, an oil spill disaster expert at Oklahoma State University.
Three global corporations – BP, the explorer; Transocean, the driller; and Halliburton, the concrete contractor – have begun pointing fingers at each other as lawsuits pile up and congressional investigations into the cause of the Deepwater Horizon accident get underway.
What is known is that a methane bubble burst up through the 23,000-foot pipe, creating a geyser of gas that spread across the rig and finally ignited. Hydraulic shears inside a five-story-tall blowout preventer where the drill pipe exits the earth's crust are supposed to sever and plug the pipe in the case of a blowout. They didn't.
Eleven people lost their lives in the explosion, and the crumpled "riser" pipe a mile from the Gulf's surface is now spewing at least 5,000 barrels a day of oil into the Gulf, with a total of at least 4 million gallons already escaped.
But while BP is bearing the brunt of blame, MMS, which is populated largely by former industry executives, has been criticized for failing to react to studies that showed problems with the blow-out preventers, refusing to mandate back-up systems, and downplaying the extent of other accidents in the Gulf. At issue in Tuesday's US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing is safety testing of the shear. One former regulator testified that MMS needs more data on shear ram performance, but insisted all such rams were tested and certified every two weeks.