The administration is ignoring the offshore drilling experts

Andrew Langer President, Institute for Liberty
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Since the tragic disaster that was last spring’s Gulf oil spill, the public has been inundated by newspaper and television coverage that, while prolific, is at best superficial and generally one-sided.  It’s time to tell the truth.

The vast US Outer Continental Shelf is largely unknown to most Americans. Since exploration and development of the shelf for oil and gas resources began in earnest in the 1950’s, more than 70,000 wells have been drilled in its nearly 2 billion acres. Nothing anywhere else in the world compares to it. No other nation has the breadth and depth of regulatory experience. Offshore oil and gas development in the OCS has become a major component of the nation’s energy security; has created hundreds of thousands of jobs; and has filled government coffers with hundreds of billions in revenue, millions of which have gone to fund critical environmental programs.

The former Minerals Management Service (MMS) was a highly technical agency employing skilled and educated professionals: engineers, scientists, economists and petroleum engineering technicians. Out of the thousands of dedicated civil servants, the inspector general over the course of three decades found a mere handful of bad apples. Never underplayed was the cooperation between the inspector general and agency management in uncovering abuse and disciplining malefactors.  Yet the press, the administration, and Congress refer to the MMS in terms of “a culture of corruption.”  A handful of bad apples do not make for “a culture of corruption” (if it did, then no federal institution would be safe from that term, starting with Congress!).

Despite that clear fact, and that no official investigation into the causes of this spring’s spill have been completed, in a frenzy of panic, finger-pointing, and a misguided sense of self-preservation, the Obama administration dismantled the MMS.  It will take years to sort out the roles of the new agencies — and worse yet, the administration has appointed an inspector general with no oil and gas experience to head a technical regulatory agency!

Not only have the dedicated professionals at MMS been demoralized by all this, their very expertise has been under siege!  Newspaper articles have taken the MMS to task for adopting industry recommendations into rules.  These recommendations were adopted only after the give and take of the full and extensive regulatory process. They were not “rubber stamped” as was inferred — federal law makes such “rubber stamping” nearly impossible.

The new director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEM) has indicated that he wants to look outside the oil and gas industry for technical guidance.  In which industry does he expect to find such specialized knowledge?  The oil and gas industry is more than a hundred years old and the technology is complex in the extreme; he needs to intelligently harness that expertise, not rebuff it.

To make matters even worse for the American people, the administration placed a moratorium on offshore operations after the April spill. That action was ruled illegal by a federal judge. Undeterred, the administration re-tooled the moratorium, re-titled it, and reissued it.  Ignoring the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on environmental studies, a multi-tiered review process that all offshore oil and gas operations must undergo before approval, and tens of thousands of comments in support of offshore drilling by the American people, the administration has now decided to add still more layers of environmental review.

Frankly, additional environmental reviews will do nothing to protect the environment.  They will, however, deny Americans good, high paying jobs, raise energy prices, and further depress the economy.   The April spill was a tragic accident, an accident whose severity was exacerbated by federal drilling policies that traded the minimal risks associated with drilling in near-shore shallow waters for far more risky deep-water drilling.  Drilling policies that, in other words, ignored the advice of well-meaning, educated professionals whose reputations were impugned because of their industry status.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.