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Did Obama Ignore The Mess At MMS?

Yesterday, Paul Krugman wrote that "President Obama isn’t completely innocent of blame in the current [Gulf oil] spill." He pointed out that the president took too long to appoint a new director of the Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling and had a dismal record under President Bush. Krugman also cited the decision by MMS to exempt the Deepwater Horizon drilling operation from a comprehensive environmental review just eleven days before the rig exploded.

But Krugman missed a few things in his column. Perhaps more glaringly, Obama has also failed to nominate an inspector general for the Interior Department, where MMS is located. In the past, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has been a crucial supervisory body exposing fraud and mismanagement at the agency. During the Bush years, OIG head Earl Devaney uncovered the criminally cozy relationship MMS had with the oil companies it was supposed to be regulating. And Devaney was the guy who investigated the ties between Jack Abramoff and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Steven Griles.

In February 2009, however, Obama put Devaney in charge of tracking stimulus payouts, and since then, the inspector general position has gone unfilled. Why? It may be that the White House (which did not respond to my requests for comment) feels comfortable with the job that Devaney's deputy, Mary Kendall, is doing as acting inspector general. But if that's the case, why not nominate her for Senate approval and remove the "acting" stigma from her title.  That would make a big difference: As the Center for Public Integrity reported last week, officials say that acting inspectors general lack “the authority, public standing, and ability to set the agenda that a Senate-approved, presidential appointee brings to the job."

Could an inspector general have made a difference? It seems likely. We now know that there were glaring deficiencies in the way MMS was regulating the offshore-drilling industry—from lax safety requirements to missing blowout preventers. What's more, even after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the bureau has approved 27 offshore drilling plans—exempting all but one from a comprehensive environmental evaluation. In a letter sent to Kendall last week, Florida Senator Bill Nelson asked the OIG to determine "the extent to which the oil and natural gas industry exercised influence in the agency’s rulemaking process." But couldn't a presidential-appointed IG with a mandate to clean up the mess at MMS have begun addressing that issue back in February 2009?

I asked as much in a conversation with Senator Nelson's office. His spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, argued that there was no reason the administration had to nominate someone new to oversee the mess at Interior—they could just bring Devaney back, who may only be "on loan" to the board overseeing the stimulus. But that's unlikely to happen any time soon, since only 47 percent of the stimulus money is out the door, and the board he chairs is supposed to continue its oversight until September 2013.

At the moment, there is little indication that Obama intends to give Kendall or another qualified candidate a presidential mandate to thoroughly review the environmental practices of the MMS. Instead, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is attempting to tackle the problems in MMS by separating its oversight and royalty collection duties into two separate bureaus. But it's unclear who the watchdog for those two new offices—and the rest of Interior—will be. Although the Center Public Integrity has reported that the administration was considering three candidates for the 15 unfilled agency watchdog positions, a call to the OIG yesterday revealed that no potential nominees have yet been circulated.

Corbin Hiar is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

(Flickr photo credit: mrchriscornwell)