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MMS needs overhaul

By Jeff Ruch, Special to CNN
  • Interior Department chief breaking Minerals Management Service into three parts
  • This "fix," meant to separate revenue and regulatory sides, is not enough, Jeff Ruch says
  • Service is notorious for ignoring, punishing whistle-blowers, Ruch says
  • Ruch: MMS must change entrenched structure, provide accountability to do its job

Editor's note: Jeff Ruch is executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a service organization that defends federal, state and local government employees working in pollution control, wildlife protection and land management. It has brought nearly 200 legal cases on their behalf and provides additional advocacy. PEER has worked extensively with employees inside the Minerals Management Service.

Washington (CNN) -- In the weeks since the disastrous BP blowout and massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there has been no shortage of finger-pointing and far-fetched fixes as scientists and engineers try to plug the torrent of oil from the blown well.

In the federal agency overseeing offshore drilling, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that his fix would be to split the U.S. Minerals Management Service into three parts.

The declared purpose of breaking up MMS was to eliminate what President Obama called the "conflict, real or perceived" between the revenue arm of the agency, which collects royalties from oil production (the second biggest source of federal funds outside of the income tax), and the regulatory side (it will become a two-part branch) that is supposed to ensure safe and environmentally benign practices.

Salazar contends the problems at MMS were caused by a few "bad apples" -- a statement that ignores the blight in the entire orchard. The problems leading to the BP spill will require more than a bureaucratic reshuffling. And the unceremonious removal Thursday of MMS Director Elizabeth Birnbaum (whom Salazar appointed 11 months ago) will do little to address far deeper problems that go back years.

Video: Salazar defends oil spill response
Video: BP CEO: Oil spill a 'catastrophe'

Superficial scapegoating will not suffice. We need fundamental reform in the way government regulates resource extraction and production.

The surface appeal of the MMS separation is also somewhat diminished by the fact that it was proposed before any review of the management failures (outside of extensive media reports) leading to the catastrophe on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.

Salazar then designated three officials who have little experience with MMS or offshore leasing to engineer the details of the agency reconfiguration. While they bring "fresh eyes," it would be nice if they also brought along a little on-the-ground experience.

Meanwhile, despite report after report from agency whistle-blowers -- scientists and engineers -- over the years detailing problems with both royalty rip-offs and environmental dangers, none of these public servants who risked their careers to document these problems are being asked for their advice or input.

This failing seems to suggest that the Obama administration wants fast cosmetic changes without the harder work of fundamental reform. One such reform would be allowing the safety and environmental specialists to do their jobs without political interference.

Despite earlier pledges, the Obama administration has not followed through on instituting meaningful reforms that protect federally employed scientists and whistle-blowers in every area from professional retaliation for calling attention to problems. As a result, the public servants who are supposed to warn of dangers still could face retribution for doing so.

In the past, MMS specialists who report issues that slow up production have often been stifled, transferred or harassed. An April report from the Government Accountability Office found that in the MMS office reviewing offshore permits in Alaskan waters, some years have seen a staff turnover exceeding 50 percent. Until this fundamental problem is addressed, workers in a future MMS (surely the name will not survive) could experience the same pattern, once the memories of the Gulf spill have lost media and public attention.

The other half of this issue is that without change, the dysfunctional management that has been rewarded for stifling concerns could remain intact. Leaving those same managers in charge (regardless of which MMS branch they surface in) merely perpetuates the bad habits.

Salazar must seriously undertake an effort to assign career accountability for short-circuiting safeguards. In other words, managers who pressured scientists to delete critical findings need to be officially disciplined or demoted. The manager responsible for MMS leasing in the Gulf just announced his retirement effective the end of this month, allowing him to leave with his rank and pension intact without any official demerit to document his role in this eco-calamity.

It may surprise many to know that managers in federal service are rarely if ever punished for decisions that are improper or illegal. In fact, many are promoted or awarded performance bonuses because they are serving the true management agenda of moving leasing packages forward. Thus, court rulings that agency actions are contrary to law (and often the very statutes the agency was created to execute) usually do not trigger any review and rarely result in a reprimand, however mild, that would sully the responsible officials' personnel file.

Until public servants can be candid without fear of reprisal and federal managers are routinely called to account for the manner and consequences of their actions, nothing will fundamentally change. Instead, the political leaders will loudly declare that they have met the crisis and blithely wait for the next one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Ruch.