The fatal disasters at the Upper Big Branch Mine and Deepwater Horizon are fresh evidence the Bush-Cheney corporate culture continues in some federal agencies charged with overseeing industry. President Obama needs to change that culture fast.
Formal investigations are underway, but it appears that lax federal oversight and enforcement, combined with corporate corner-cutting and greed, are implicated in both of the energy industry tragedies — the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years and the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Massey Energy's mine and BP's drilling ship in the Gulf were subject to federal oversight. In both cases, oversight failed.
Some barriers to federal oversight are systemic. Congressional hearings after the Massey disaster, for example, found that mining companies often abuse the appeals process when federal inspectors find safety violations. About 16,000 violations currently are being appealed, representing $195 million in unpaid fines. It takes more than a year to resolve an appeal these days.
Other barriers are cultural, the result of an administration's philosophy about overseeing powerful industries. During the eight years of the Bush administration, corporate lobbyists for the fossil energy industry were appointed to key government policy and regulatory jobs. The most infamous was Philip Cooney, the former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute who used his position in the White House to censor and water down the conclusions of research by federal climate scientists. After a whistleblower revealed Cooney's misdeeds to the New York Times, Cooney resigned and went to work for ExxonMobil.
To illustrate how much the Bush administration was in bed with oil companies, however, nothing topped the scandal in the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, the same agency accused now of insufficient oversight in the Gulf oil spill. As the New York Times reported in September 2008:
As Congress prepares to debate expansion of drilling in taxpayer-owned coastal waters, the Interior Department agency that collects oil and gas royalties has been caught up in a wide-ranging ethics scandal — including allegations of financial self-dealing, accepting gifts from energy companies, cocaine use and sexual misconduct.
In three reports delivered to Congress on Wednesday, the department's inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, found wrongdoing by a dozen current and former employees of the Minerals Management Service, which collects about $10 billion in royalties annually and is one of the government's largest sources of revenue other than taxes. "A culture of ethical failure" pervades the agency, Mr. Devaney wrote in a cover memo. The reports portray a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration's watch.
After he was appointed, Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made clean-up of this scandal one of his first priorities. But the roots of the Bush legacy apparently reach deep – a legacy in which regulatory agencies serve the corporations they're supposed to regulate rather than the public interest.
Whatever the outcome of the Gulf oil release – and it's certain to be devastating – President Obama should take forceful action to put the federal government's oversight functions back on track. Some suggestions:
- Obama should direct the Inspectors General of all agencies charged with overseeing environmental regulations and worker safety to investigate how those responsibilities are being performed. In cases where recent IG investigations already have found enforcement deficiencies, the White House should review whether the deficiencies have been corrected.
- The president should use the power of the purse to enforce the principle that America's natural resources – its oceans, public lands and fresh water, to name a few – are "trust assets." In other words, they are owned by present and future generations, and public officials have a fiduciary responsibility to protect them. Obama should order agencies whose functions directly or indirectly affect the nation's natural resources to codify that policy in job descriptions, performance standards and appraisals, and in decisions about bonuses and promotions.
- The president should direct the attorney general to aggressively enforce this principle through the courts, seeking injunctive relief and penalties against companies who violate our environmental laws. Anything less is a failure to perform the responsibility Congress has delegated to the Executive Branch to protect America's natural assets and environmental quality.
This is not socialist tree-hugging. It's about restoring balance between corporate interests with the public interest, and balancing resource exploitation with resource protection. The Gulf disaster is a tragic reminder of how important natural systems are to our economy, not to mention our physical health. Many of those systems are under profound stress. Many of the public health and safety problems prevalent today – from devastating floods to childhood asthma – are a result of environmental degradation.
I don't mean here to impugn the integrity of federal employees generally. Most work hard every day to carry out their jobs. I was proud to be one of them for 17 years. Nor do I mean to imply that companies don't have a moral responsibility to govern their own behavior, with or without a regulatory whip. They do.
But it seems clear that remnants remain of the Bush administration's corporate culture, perhaps including some political appointees who "burrowed in" to the civil service before Bush left office. Whatever the reasons – and President Obama needs to dig deep within his Administration to find them out – the federal government appears to be complicit in the deaths of 40 energy industry workers lately and in ruining the economy and ecosystem of an entire region.
(Image: White House)