NEW ORLEANS - The top government official overseeing offshore drilling retired suddenly yesterday in a sign that the Obama administration was determined to fulfill the president's pledge to end the Mineral Management Service's "cozy relationship" with oil companies.
Chris Oynes was appointed associate director of the Offshore Energy and Minerals Management Program* by President Bush in 2007, after 13 years of overseeing the oil drilling permit process in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I hope Chris Oynes' decision to retire signals an understanding that a changing of the guard is necessary to cure MMS of the many ills it endured during the previous administration," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the chairman of the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee. "Today's announcement is one of several steps that will be necessary to fundamentally reform MMS, and it represents an opportunity to begin anew with a clean slate."
The President had already called a halt to further deepwater drilling permits until the oil disaster in the Gulf can be investigated and until there can be assurances against further disasters.
A culture of laxity, corruption, and working hand in hand with oil companies and the "cozy relationship" referred to by the President is apparently long established tradition at MSS.
A report from the Interior Department's own inspector general released in Sept., 2008 painted the picture of a Bush administration that had been literally in bed with the oil companies for years with revelations that MMS officials engaged in sex, drugs and partying with oil and gas company representatives. The MMS issues offshore drilling leases and handles billions of dollars in oil royalties.
The investigators, who began their probe early in President Bush's second term, found that MMS operatives were rigging contracts, working as private oil consultants and having sex with, using drugs with and accepting golf and ski trips, dinners and other gifts from oil and gas company executives.
The report notes that oil industry executives referred to female MMS staff participating in the frequent industry-regulator get-togethers as "the MMS chicks."
Adding insult to injury, the MMS failed to send a witness to a Senate hearing yesterday on the government and industry response to the massive oil spill which began when an explosion on an oil rig claimed 11 workers' lives.
Obama announced this weekend that his administration is reviewing how MMS implements the National Environmental Policy Act and endangered species laws. A few days earlier his administration said it is dividing MMS, which both regulates offshore drilling and collects billions of dollars in royalties. The plan is to create an entirely new offshore environmental and safety agency that will be responsible for inspection, investigation and enforcement operations.
The labor movement here is clear about where it believes the responsibility for poor federal oversight lies. Labor leaders are connecting the dots between deregulation during the Bush administration and the oil spill today.
"George W. Bush vetoed a law that would have required a mandatory cut-off valve precisely for this type of crisis," said Robert "Tiger" Hammond, president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO.
David Magee, vice president of International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 3000 here, said lax regulators during the Bush administration did the bidding of oil companies, allowing the tragedy to happen. "BP was trying to save money, as a result 11 lives were lost and our state, city and region are going to suffer."
New Orleans labor leaders reject attempts by the right-wing media, including Fox News, to implicate the Obama administration in lax federal regulation.
Tiger, who also serves as the executive secretary for the Southwest Louisiana Building Construction Trades Council, pointed to the administration's plan to break up MMS and said he has seen "a huge change in the federal government's approach to regulating big corporations since President Obama took office."
Citing the overhaul of MMS and the administration's move to guarantee that contractors pay prevailing wages at federal and other job sites, Magee said, "The Obama administration has been part of our post-Katrina success. Obama is on the side of the community, the workers, the fishermen. BP, on the other hand, allowed this tragedy to happen."
Photo: Pollution resulting from the lack of oversight of regulators could soon reach these docks 70 miles inland. (Blake Deppe/PW)
*Correction: In a previous version the story incorrectly described Chris Oynes as being appointed the head of MMS in 2007. We regret the error.