MMS Review: Too Little, Too Late

| Fri May 14, 2010 1:25 PM EDT

In recent weeks, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has shown light on the litany of failures at the Minerals Management Service, the government office that oversees oil and gas development. The service's seeming inability to follow through on basic environmental analysis has become glaringly obvious, as has the litany of failures at the agency that may have added to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today the New York Times jumped on the story, adding that MMS has also ignored the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act in permitting drilling in the Gulf. Warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about the potential environmental impacts of offshore drilling have repeatedly been ignored as drilling operations got the rubber stamp from federal officials. All signs point to a continuing cozy relationship between the oil industry and MMS.

So on Friday, a few days late and, well, billions of dollars in damage to the Gulf and coastal states short, the Council on Environmental Quality and MMS announced that they would conduct a review of the agency's procedures for carrying out oblications under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). "Every agency in the executive branch of the Federal Government has a responsibility to implement NEPA," said CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley. CEQ's main job is making sure other federal agencies follow through on NEPA obligations, so MMS' failure to do so is very much the CEQ's problem, too. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also announced this week that he intends to split the scandal-ridden MMS into two agencies to address some of the problems with oversight.

The Department of Interior maintains that much of the problem is still a holdover from the Bush administration. "Under the previous administration, there was a pattern of suppressing science in decisions, and we are working very hard to change the culture and empower scientists in the Department of the Interior," Kendra Barkoff, a department spokeswoman, told the Times.

Many problems do predate Salazar, but it's clear that some things have not changed in the past year and a half. Pretending otherwise is not a solution.