If you're wondering how a giant oil slick could be allowed to form in the Gulf Coast and lap at the Louisiana shoreline, here's a scary thought: The agency responsible for preventing something like this was too busy snorting crystal meth off toaster ovens.
It's been 10 days now since the massive explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast, and eight days have passed since what was left of the rig sank into the sea. Eleven oil rig workers are still missing and presumed dead. And the well, a mile below the water's surface, continues to spew 200,000 gallons of oil a day. (Every two days, that's enough liquid to fill up the outdoor Dolphin Bay tank at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi.)
The human tragedy and the potential environmental disaster inching toward the mouth of the Mississippi make some folks wonder: What role did the government play in this? Did it drop the ball?
The federal agency getting the most scrutiny right now is the agency that oversees deepwater oil rigs, the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department. Here's what we wrote about the MMS back in September 2008:
Sadly, our favorite bit of tawdriness in the scandal –- the one that involved a federal official snorting crystal meth off a toaster oven –- took place near the Mile High City, as best we can tell from reading the three special reports issued this week by the Interior Department’s inspector general. But the reports say officials with the federal Minerals Management Service were selling influence, cutting insider deals, getting freebies and meals and who-knows-what-else in the Bayou City.
Funny, that’s not what they were supposed to be doing. They were supposed to be collecting money from Big Oil on behalf of the taxpayers.
And not surprisingly, many of the petroleum-related firms giving the freebies and meals are based in Houston or do substantial business in the unofficial oil-and-gas capital of the world.
The specific office of the MMS that gave us the toaster-meth scene was one that is tasked with collecting government royalities from oil firms for the products they bring up from the ground. But meth-snorting in one unit certainly doesn't reflect well on the MMS as a whole.
The folks at Pro Publica -- along with Marcus Baram at Huffington Post -- also made the connection. Pro Publica reminds us that it reported in '08 that MMS was pretty screwed up:
The behemoth of an oil slick is still a long ways east of Galveston Bay, but the disaster at Deepwater Horizon is a huge deal in Houston. Even though many Houstonians are proud to talk about how the city's economy has diversified since the oil bust of the '80s, petroleum is still a major part of the area's economy. Thousands of Houstonians work for TransOcean, which owned the rig, and still thousands more work for oil giant BP, for which it was drilling -- and though many of those workers may toil in cubicle farms, like the ones in the gleaming BP complex I pass each day on I-10, a good number of them make their livings working on platforms just like Deepwater Horizon, doing the dangerous work of getting oil out of the ocean floor.
Hitting particularly hard on the government dropping the ball is POGO, the Project on Government Oversight in Washington. (POGO is particularly critical of the cozy relationships between government and private industry -- whether it's government and contractors or government and firms it is supposed to regulate.) They've questioned the cost of the spill to taxpayers and pointed to a recent report by the Government Accounting Office "that showed that the Interior Department struggles to effectively inspect federal leases — and has for a long time. This is part of a culture that prioritized production, and it's worth asking whether this oil spill is a preventable consequence of that culture."
In another post, POGO points out that that MMS thought Deepwater Horizon was safe enough to be given a safety award and asked, "Does it matter that BP opposed stricter safety rules for offshore drilling? Or that Food and Water Watch has raised concerns about the potential for a similar disaster, based on the allegations of 'a whistleblower and former company contractor' that another platform "'has been operating without a large percentage of the engineer-approved documents needed for it to operate safely'"?
You can see more about the relationship between the oil and gas industry and federal politicians at OpenSecrets.org, the Web site of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. You can see their totals for oil-and-gas lobbying and also search for campaign contributions by employees of BP and TransOcean (though searching for TransOcean will also find many donors who reported being employees of the TransOceanic Cable Ship Co.)
I predict the cost to taxpayers will become more of an issue as more of the spill reaches the shoreline and if we see major environmental damage or harm done to small businesses, such as commercial fishing on the Gulf Coast. The progressive South Texas Chisme blog says, "BP expects us to clean up their mess," while Clear Lake Democratic activist John Cobarruvias of the Bay Area Houston blog says BP will have to "pay, baby, pay." Meanwhile, the AP reports -- spotted via the Dallas Morning News -- that the federal government, including the Coast Guard and now the Defense Department, have stepped up their involvement in the spill after learning that the well was leaking five times as much as BP originally told them.