On Thursday, Minerals Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum resigned. Or, she was fired. At his press conference, President Obama said he didn't know which.
No matter. It will take much more than high-level head-rolling to clean up the MMS' act in the wake of the Deepwater Horror. What a classic example of a captive regulatory agency.
MMS, you will recall, was the agency whose employees were at the center of a sex-and-drugs scandal that the Interior Department's inspector general spotlighted in 2008. At the time, MMS ran a royalty-in-kind program in which oil and gas companies could pay their royalty obligations in product. The MMS regulators running royalty-in-kind got too close to their regulatees. Way too close, as it turned out. Royalty-in-kind, indeed. Royalty-in-too-kind.
The sex-and-drug frolics were only symptoms of what ails the agency, however. MMS seems to have had a toxic willingness to identify with the oil and gas industry's production agenda, and to push that agenda while not paying sufficient attention to ensuring that such agenda doesn't kill people or pollute the environment.
Regulatory capture is a vivid illustration of the necessity of laws permitting citizen suits - which often are detested by industry apologists-slash-conservative poseurs. Citizen suits keep agencies honest. Citizen suits are filed by ordinary individuals exercising their freedom to hold their government accountable.
Citizen suits, however, are only part of the answer to regulatory capture. Agencies that do their jobs well need not fear serious litigation. Agencies that do their jobs well have a culture of service in the public interest.
Think of the National Park Service. Yes, the Park Service has its problems and shortcomings, as any human institution does. Still, the Park Service at its best has an almost military esprit de corps reflecting an ethic of service to our country, not to corporate clients. Rangers are proud of their parks and proud of their mission to protect those parks for every citizen to enjoy.
Any good ranger worth his or her salt can recite from memory the mission of the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act: " to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
The day that we have an MMS that has an NPS kind of mission and has employees who take an NPS kind of pride in fulfilling that mission will be the day that our oceans are in better hands.
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