Salazar "Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic" Says Babbit

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Former Department of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt ripped on current Secretary Ken Salazar's plans to reform the beleaguered Minerals Management Service over the weekend. "I think Salazar is basically rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic," Babbitt, who served as secretary for eight years under Bill Clinton, told Platts Energy Week.

In the weeks since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, the Minerals Management Service has been blasted for years of lax oversight that likely contributed to the disaster. Salazar announced an overhaul of policies of the department last month, shortly after splitting MMS into separate divisions to oversee revenue collection and regulation. The head of MMS was pushed out as well as attention to the agency's failures grew.

But Babbitt says splitting the department doesn't go far enough. "You can walk down the hall and the environmental regulation will be a different office in the same agency," said Babbitt. "I think we need much more basic structural reform." Environmental oversight of offshore drilling should be handled by a separate agency altogether that can serve as an independent regulator, possibly the Environmental Protection Agency.

Babbitt also served on the presidential committee that Jimmy Carter created in 1979 to review the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Babbitt said he thinks the Gulf spill is "very comparable" in terms of serving as "a defining industrial accident," one that creates opportunity for meaningful reforms.

While the risks of drilling have increased as oil companies moved from land, to shallow waters, to deeper and deeper drilling sites, the regulatory process has not kept up, he said. "The industry has been essentially self-regulating," said Babbitt, and the changes and restructuring that are needed should be a top focus as President Obama's oil spill commission looks at the current disaster.

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