Not surprisingly, the Gulf Oil spill has prompted the media to shine a spotlight on the Mineral Management Service (MMS), the government agency responsible for issuing permits allowing oil companies to drill in federally-owned waters. Stories such as this one in today’s New York Times suggest that the MMS’s cozy relationship with the oil industry led to a lax permitting process, thus contributing to the disaster. As evidence, they point to previous instances in which the MMS ran afoul of government regulators and attracted congressional interest in reforming the agency. However, these media stories are somewhat misleading; while it is true that the MMS was accused of overseeing a lax permitting process and being too cozy with the oil industry, the stories do not really focus on the reason why this situation exists. In fact, the government institution that bears primary responsibility for how the MMS operates is the very one whose members are calling for investigations now: Congress.
Some background on the MMS is in order. News accounts suggest it was “created” in 1982 via executive order issued by President Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt. In fact, what Watt did was consolidate into one agency the mineral revenue management functions previously exercised by the US Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, and US Bureau of Indian Affairs. Any government agency, when first established, must determine its “mission”. What is it about? How the agency determines its mission has important implications for its internal structure, especially which employees will wield the most influence, its hiring strategies, and how it relates to its external environment. Typically, the mission is designed to insure the agency’s autonomy and political survival. In this case, the MMS essentially inherited its mission from these previous agencies.
As a consequence the MMS from its inception defined its mission as collecting payments for minerals extracted from federally-owned waters. A look at the backgrounds of the 10 MMS directors serving from its inception until the Obama administration shows that many had backgrounds in litigation and revenue collection. These backgrounds are well suited for negotiating revenue agreements with private companies – not for understanding the environmental impact of off-shore oil drilling.
Here is the MMS mission statement, taken from its website:
“The Minerals Management Service (MMS), a bureau in the U.S. Department of the Interior, is the Federal agency that manages the nation’s natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS). The agency also collects, accounts for and disburses an average of $13.7 billion per year in revenues from Federal offshore mineral leases and from onshore mineral leases on Federal and American Indian lands. The program is national in scope and is headquartered in Washington, D.C.”
Note what its mission statement does NOT cite: environmental oversight or regulation. Although it is supposed to consult with other governmental agencies with environmental responsibilities when it issues permits, that is not how the MMS defines its primary task. Revenue estimation and collection is what it does. And by most accounts it has been effective, at least as measured in dollar amounts, at fulfilling this mission. Since 1982, it has collected more than $210 billion in royalties and other revenues, most of which is then distributed to states, Indian tribes, counties, and the federal treasury. On an annual basis the $13 billion it raises constitutes about 95% of the total revenues collected by the Interior Department. This makes it, next to the IRS, the most lucrative agency in the government (if my calculations are correct).
But if it is so effective, what about all those reports the NY Times and other new agencies cite about GAO investigations and congressional hearings? Although these news accounts seem to imply that investigators primarily worried about the environmental failures linked to the MMS permitting process, that is not the case. Instead, the more typical concern (although not the only one) was that the MMS did not charge the oil companies enough money to drill in federal waters. Most of the GAO reports dealing with the MMS focus on the weakness of a “payment-in-kind” or other aspects of the royalty program – not an environmentally-lax permitting process. Similarly, the IGS investigation cited by the Times also focused on the MMS’ revenue decisions. The recurring complaint in these investigations is that MMS executive are cutting oil companies a revenue deal, rather than engaging in lax environmental regulation.
When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came in as the “new sheriff in town”, his ethics changes were designed not to heighten environmental awareness of potential oil spills, but instead to more strongly regulate the cozy relationship between oil companies and the MMS that threatened revenues. In fact, it was Salazar – following Congress’ decision to open up off shore oil drilling – that initiated the hearing process designed to solicit comments on the Obama administration’s off-shore drilling expansion plan.
My point is that Congress’ and regulatory agencies’ alarms regarding the failure of the MMS to fulfill its mission almost never focused on the environmental aspect of its permitting process, but instead on the revenue side. (There are exceptions – the GAO, for example, in a 2007 report did question the environmental basis of some of the MMS’ Alaskan bureau’s review process). In general, however, the MMS read the political signals – focus on revenues - and acted accordingly.
But didn’t other government agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warn about the environmental aspects of expanding off shore drilling? Yes, but again the news accounts don’t tell the full story here. As the Huffington Post and other website reported, the NOAA did express concern, as part of the hearing process into off shore drilling initiated by Salazar, about the environmental impact of drilling in sensitive areas. But that concern, as one can read in its report here focused almost exclusively on the environmental impact of drilling in Arctic areas.
While it is easy with hindsight to blame Salazar, and by extension Obama, for pushing to expand off-shore drilling, the reality is that companies drilling in U.S. waters have a pretty good environmental safety record. Since 1969, there have been only a handful of major spills from drilling (that is, spills with over 1,000 barrels of oil leaking) and the most significant occurred decades ago. There’s a reason Obama touted the safety record of off-shore drilling – the data supported his claim. Indeed, drilling off shore seemed far safer than relying on oil tankers to import oil from abroad; spills from these vessels (until now) were far more numerous and extensive.
My point here is not to totally absolve the Obama administration from some responsibility for this spill. But the media focus on his handling of the spill and in overseeing the MMS obscures the fact that it is Congress that is largely responsible for signaling to the MMS that its primary mission, when issuing drilling permits, is not protecting the environment, but instead protecting the government’s revenue stream.
The MMS operates in a political environment that is best described, in the words of political scientist James Q. Wilson, as “clientele” politics. (Some of you may recognize the more common phrase “iron triangle” which is a version of clientele politics.) In this policy context, the President and his political appointees, including Salazar, rarely exercise lasting influence. Instead minerals management policies tend to be made in a closely-knit network consisting of agency officials, representatives of the affected industries, and congressional oversight committees. Given this fact, I have little hope that Salazar’s organizational remedy – splitting the MMS permitting process off from its environmental regulatory side – will have much impact. Under the reorganization, both the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which will supervise traditional energy development in federal waters, and the new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), will still report to the same individual overseeing the Interior Department’s land and minerals management. (A third organization – the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) will take over the MMS’ royalty and revenue functions.)
Government agencies are created for a purpose. They develop a mission, which is how they define their purpose, and they organize their functions to most effectively achieve that mission. The MMS’ mission was not defined as weighing environmental concerns during the permitting process. It was to insure that the government received full compensation for leasing federal property to energy companies. Whenever the MMS found itself embroiled in controversy, it almost always centered on congressional complaints about this function – not the environmental aspects of the permitting process.
The real story, one that the Times and other news agencies are missing, is not ethical lapses or mismanagement at MMS – it is that the MMS typically did precisely what Congress wanted it to do, and – news reports about is dysfunctional nature notwithstanding – generally did it well. Given its mission, and the climate in which it operates, the “organizational” reforms Salazar has instituted on Obama’s behalf will likely have little long range effect. It is Congress that must change the MMS. To date it has had little incentive to do so. I am not optimistic that in the long run the Gulf oil spill will change this.
P.S. Don’t forget to visit the MMS website for kids! There’s cool things to see and do! Learn about “tide pool” math! Play “Watts It to You!” Sweet.