Sex, Drugs, and Offshore Drilling

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 5:58 PM PDT

It looks like the folks at the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service have finally gone too far.

For years, the MMS has been assisting private energy companies in carrying out a massive rip-off of the American public through sweetheart deals for extracting oil, natural gas, and minerals from public domain lands. In the most recent issue of Mother Jones, I described the corrupt system that allows companies like Shell and Chevron to suck up these publicly owned resources at bargain prices, and proposed the abolition of the MMS as one of the ideas for "How to Fix a Post-Bush Nation."

But except for the work of watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight, and of the Interior Department's own tough-minded Inspector General, a former Massachusetts cop named Earl Delvaney, this travesty has received relatively little attention--until now. Apparently, even in a country where no one is surprised to find government officials figuratively in bed with the oil industry, we are still shocked to learn that they have been literally in bed with them.

On Wednesday, Delvaney's office released the latest in a series of investigations focusing on the MMS's Royalty in Kind (RIK) program. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Nick Rahall (D-WV) described the report as reading "like a script from a television miniseries--and one that cannot air during family viewing time." It documents what investigators called a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" at the MMS, and what the Associated Press described as a "fraternity house atmosphere."

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According to the AP, "The alleged transgressions involve 13 former and current Interior Department employees in Denver and Washington. Their alleged improprieties include rigging contract, working part-time as private oil consultants, and having sexual relationships with--and accepting golf and ski trips and dinners from--oil company employees."

The report stated: "During the course of our investigation, we learned that some RIK employees frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives." Two of the program's employees were nicknamed "the 'MMS Chicks'" by energy traders.

While corruption at the MMS has been documented in many earlier reports, it's sex that sells newspapers—and, so it seems, Congressional investigations. After keeping the issue on the back burner for some time, Henry Waxman (D-CA) announced today that his House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform would hold hearings on the Mineral Management Service next week.

The revelations of rumpy-pumpy may finally inspire a real shake-up at the service, which is not only long overdue, but especially important at a moment when both Republicans and Democrats support expanded offshore drilling. Offshore oil and gas leases are managed by the MMS, which has a predictably dismal record of serving the public interest in this area: According to the Government Accountability Office, deepwater leases the MMS negotiated in the Gulf of Mexico already stand to cost U.S. taxpayers as much as $53 billion—and to pad the profits of the companies our civil servants like to party with by the same amount. It all gives a whole new meaning to getting screwed by the oil industry.

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