As the new estimates of how much oil is being spilled from the BP Deep Horizon’s oil disaster (which is now estimated at as much as 70,000 barrels or 294,000 gallons a day) there have been the rumblings that there might be criminal proceedings against Transocean ( the rig owners), BP (the lease owners) and Halliburton (the folks who set the cement plugs that did not hold) . This is a good thing, as we should never lose sight of the fact that 11 people were killed in the initial explosion, as well as the enormous and on-going devastation to fisheries and tourism in the Gulf of Mexico.

If criminal charges only happen to those three groups it will miss one of the most critical and culpable players in the tragicomedy which lead up to the greatest ecological disaster ever to impact the United States; namely the Minerals Management Service.

The MMS has long had a reputation for being a rogue agency that had abandoned its responsibility to the people of the nation in favor of the industries that it was supposed to be regulating. There is new information in yesterdays New York Times that shows just how bad things had become.

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MMS is not the only agency which oil companies are required to get permits from to drill. As part of the applications process in MMS there is the need for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to sign off that the proposed project would not adversely affect endangered species, in the exploration and development phases.

NOAA officials are pointing to a 2009 letter where they accuse the MMS of consistently downplaying the numbers of spills that occur and the overall affects of the release of oil has on the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Even so the MMS went ahead with approval for wells and new development, including the Deep Horizon well.

I often refer to the last administration as “the criminal Bush administration”. This is only partly hyperbole as their apparent war crimes are well known and admitted, even if they are tragically uninvestigated and prosecuted at this time. However there was a culture of lawlessness that pervaded every aspect of that administration. They systematically undermined enforcement of federal regulations in all aspects of business.

In an agency where the culture was already one of walking hand in glove with the industry this led the MMS to go even further into the pockets and even the beds of the oil industry. We are all aware of the scandal here in Colorado where MMS staff were sleeping with oil industry lobbyists and trading permitting favors for crystal methamphetamine. While that might make a good plot line in an AMC TV show, that level of criminality in a federal agency should be horrifying.

Over the span of the criminal Bush administration science was subverted for political and economic purposes just like it was in all other Executive Branch agencies. From the Times article:

Managers at the agency have routinely overruled staff scientists whose findings highlight the environmental risks of drilling, according to a half-dozen current or former agency scientists.

The scientists, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals by the agency or by those in the industry, said they had repeatedly had their scientific findings changed to indicate no environmental impact or had their calculations of spill risks downgraded.

“You simply are not allowed to conclude that the drilling will have an impact,” said one scientist who has worked for the minerals agency for more than a decade. “If you find the risks of a spill are high or you conclude that a certain species will be affected, your report gets disappeared in a desk drawer and they find another scientist to redo it or they rewrite it for you.”

The MMS has as its mission statement the following:

The MMS’s mission is to manage the ocean energy and mineral resources on the Outer Continental Shelf and Federal and Indian mineral revenues to enhance public and trust benefits, promote responsible use, and realize fair value.

It seems clear that they have take the “promote responsible use” section to mean that any use is responsible use.

When do the actions of a government agency become criminal in and of themselves? There is a fiduciary responsibility that all government agencies have to act in the public interest. This is, of necessity, going to be a balancing act where actions are open to interpretation. This is part of why the government has sovereign immunity, which prevents it for being sued for carrying out its functions. However sovereign immunity does not shield agency or person who breaks the law in the performance of their duties.

Have the actions of the MMS risen to this level? That is hard to say, as there is issue of intent to commit a crime, without it sovereign immunity applies. As more and more information comes out on the way that the MMS has abdicated their regulatory writing and enforcement responsibilities to the very industry they are regulating, it seems more and more likely that there will be more than a few people who set out to circumvent the process laid down in law intentionally. This should put them in legal jeopardy.

It is easy to point a finger at Sec. Interior Salazar and the Obama administration in general for not focusing more immediate attention on an agency which was clearly corrupt. For the President there is and understandable lack of focus given the two wars and the economic crisis he inherited. There is less room for sympathy for Sec. Salazar as it is his job to focus on the Department of Interior. Yet it is a huge organization, with 70,000 employees across its various agencies.

When a agency is completely corrupt it is often hard to penetrate it to understand where the issues are. After all the MMS is supposed to be where our experts on oil drilling are located. If the work of the experts is subverted or changed it becomes very difficult to get an unbiased view of the process.

There is a bill in Congress now that will provide an additional 10 million dollars for the DOJ to litigate around the Deep Horizon disaster. It is to be fervently hoped the some of that money will be spent looking into the role of MMS personnel. Even if there are no criminal charges for the MMS staff it is clear this agency needs to be completely revamped. Anyone currently working in management there is so tainted as to be unacceptable as a government employee working with the oil industry in any capacity.

The fact is we were lied to about the risks of deep water drilling in the Outer Continentals Shelf. The potential for blow outs where downplayed. The mitigation measures were nonexistent. The Blow Out Preventers which were supposed to be the last fail safe are found to be nothing of the kind. The level of devastation which a run away well could produce was underestimated by orders of magnitude.

MMS was the agency which was supposed to be on top of these issues. Their failure to even moderately investigate and enforce federal regulations has directly led to what we have today. In my mind this is nothing short of criminal. The really sad thing is that it will continue to happen if we do find those responsible and at the very least eject them from federal service, permanently.

The floor is yours.

Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for