Bush MMS Director: 'When I Was There It Seemed to Work Well'
From the Wonk Room.
Johnnie Burton, former MMS director
As for allegations of lax enforcement at the Minerals Management Service, grossly inadequate spill response plans and other regulatory shortfalls, Burton said that as MMS director she was unaware of those problems. “I can’t answer all these questions at this point because when I was there it seemed to work well,” Burton said.
The agency worked so “well” that investigators found evidence of “cronyism and cover-ups of management blunders; capitulation to oil companies in disputes about payments; plunging morale among auditors; and unreliable data-gathering that often makes it impossible to determine how much money companies actually owe.”Burton was in charge during the development of the offshore drilling plan that expanded drilling to the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Her Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program 2007-2012 included 2008’s Lease Sale 206, in which BP purchased Mississippi Canyon Block 252 (MC252) for $34 million. MC252, also known as the Macondo Prospect, has been flooding the Gulf of Mexico with oil for months now. Burton’s plan dismissed the environmental threat of that sale, primarily because no huge disasters had taken place since the Ixtoc I blowout in 1979, as these excerpts show:
The analysis above shows that with regard to potential oil spill impacts, areas that contain wetlands and marshes such as the Central GOM are particularly sensitive. However, lessees have been producing oil and gas from the Central Gulf and other areas for over 50 years with a remarkable record of environmental safety. For more than 30 years, there have been no significant oil spills from platforms anywhere on the OCS. [p. 92]
No Environmental Justice impacts from accidental oil spills are expected because of the movement of oil and gas activities further away from coastal areas and, also, the demographic pattern of more affluent groups living in coastal areas. [p. 60]
The Central Gulf coastal area ranks second in marine primary productivity only to the Mid-Atlantic. The marine primary productivity of the Central Gulf does not appear to have been appreciably diminished by offshore exploration and production activities. The same is true of other areas of the OCS with existing operations and production. Thus, the size, location, and timing of lease sales in the PFP are consistent with the marine primary productivity of the areas in which lease sales will be held. [p. 95]
Overall, impacts on national parks, national wildlife refuges, national estuarine research reserves, and national estuary program sites due to routine operations are expected to be limited under the proposed action because these areas are restricted from development. Impacts from oil spills are unlikely because it is anticipated that 75 percent of the hydrocarbons developed, as a result of the 2007-2012 leasing program in the GOM area are expected to occur in deep water (>330 m) usually located far from the shoreline. [p. 57]
Any single large spill would likely affect only a small proportion of a given fish population within the GOM, and it is unlikely that fish resources would be permanently affected. [p. 57]
In areas with a large proportion of impact-sensitive industry, such as tourism, the potential incremental impacts of oil spills would likely result in a one-time seasonal decline in business activity. [p. 59]
Impacts of accidental releases to water quality would depend on the size of the spill, type of material or product spilled, and environmental factors at the time of the spill. However, there would be no long-term, widespread impairment of marine water quality. [p. 60]
I remember enough to tell you, for the five years I was there, we never relaxed any rules – never changed any rules to make them any less safe.
In fact, Burton’s MMS followed the Bush agenda of “increasing domestic oil and gas production, offering more incentives to drillers in the Gulf of Mexico and pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other wilderness areas to drilling.” The “department trimmed spending on enforcement and cut back on auditors, and sped up approvals for drilling applications.” Auditing revenues plummeted by 86 percent from its 2000 peak even though oil prices soared, as Burton slashed auditing, fired effective auditors who challenged oil companies for bilking the American public and she resisted efforts to recoup money.
These are amazing times in the Gulf of Mexico. We are entering the second decade of sustained expansion of domestic oil and gas development in the deep water area of the Gulf.
The praise heaped on BP and the safety of offshore drilling from Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, Burton’s boss, at the Thunder Horse celebration are painful in retrospect:
It is little noticed, and even less appreciated, but offshore production platforms have a remarkable safety record. Only about 1 percent of the oil in U.S. domestic waters comes from accidental spills, according to the most recent Oil in the Sea report from the National Academy of Sciences. . . .
My second message today is about the importance of energy to the American economy, and the need for America to have its own domestic sources of energy. I recognize that this message is somewhat ironic, since today we are recognizing the accomplishment of a company well known as British Petroleum. Clearly part of what we celebrate today is the strong alliance that extends across the Atlantic Ocean. We recognize once again that two nations have grown from a common root, split apart, and matured. We feel assured that a business venture involving both nations is as secure as one done within our national borders.
Five months later, in July 2005, Hurricane Dennis nearly sank the Thunder Horse platform at Mississippi Canyon Block 778. After the dangerously listing platform was repaired, it was returned to production, where it continues to pump oil for BP and Exxon to this day, only a few dozen miles from the Deepwater Horizon wreck.