The New York Times turns over valuable op-ed page space to a former Bush OMB official who uses it to obscure it was his and OMB’s job to oversee how effective Interior and Minerals Management Service (MMS) were in regulating and promoting offshore oil drilling.
In A Disaster Congress Voted For, former Bush OMB official David Abraham argues we should blame Congress and environmentalists for the lax regulatory climate that led to the BP oil disaster. The Times helpfully informs us that Mr. Abraham "oversaw offshore programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2003 to 2005." What does that mean?
I think it means Mr. Abraham and OMB had influence over the regulatory plans and budgets of the Interior Department and MMS, the agencies responsible for issuing deepwater drilling permits and ensuring compliance with the nation’s environmental, public health and safety laws.
Moreover, at least since the Reagan era, OMB has assumed responsibility for making sure the nation’s regulations do not impose unwanted restrictions on corporate actions. Because as we all know, health and safety regulations and enforcement should end where they unduly impinge on the bottom line.
A major OMB function is thus to screen existing and proposed regulations to make sure economic burdens on industry are fully considered during and after agency rulemaking. So, if an overly conscientious regulatory agency took its environmental, health and safety responsibilities too strongly, OMB would bring them back into ideological conformity by vetoing proposed regulations and, if needed, by controlling the wayward agency’s budgets. In the era of corporate governance, OMB helps enforce an Administration’s ideologically preferences for or against government interventions in the economy.
Now perhaps Mr. Abraham was alarmed during his tenure and pressed OMB for larger and more effective MMS regulatory budgets. But his op-ed doesn’t say that nor hint at his own and OMB’s likely complicity nor mention the era’s dominant pro-corporate ideology. Instead, he says that Congress was mostly responsible for the lax regulation when offshore drilling literally exploded in the Gulf.
For more than a decade, legislators have allowed themselves to be lulled by industry assurances that drilling in deep water posed little danger. One could say that Congress, just like the companies it has attacked, was obsessed with oil. . . .
At the same time that Congress called for new drilling incentives, it also gutted oversight. From 2002 to 2008, legislators approved budgets reducing regulatory staffing levels by more than 15 percent — despite more complex deep-water operations and Interior Department concerns, voiced in 2000, that industry’s extensive use of contractors and inexperienced offshore workers posed new risks in deep water.
He does not mention that during most of this period after 2000, a Republican President and/or Republican-controlled House or Senate were in charge. So Republican, pro-industry Congresses and Administrations were the ones "obsessed by oil" who "gutted oversight."
Nor does he mention the almost unanimous ideological embrace of regulatory dismantlement by Republicans and conservative Democrats. It was the same guiding ideology expressed by his OMB bosses and President George Bush, not to mention the era’s energy czar Dick Cheney — whose names Abraham neglects to mention to protect the guilty. (Later, however, he does mention that Barack Obama is now President, and as we all know, Democrats control Congress, though I’m sure Mr. Abraham meant to cast blame only in the most bipartisan way.)
Next, Abraham joins Sarah Palin in blaming environmental groups. Palin blamed the enviros for opposing "safe drilling" and thus, in her logic, forcing the industry to engage in "unsafe" offshore drilling, which, uh, she hastens to add, is still safe. Abraham blames the enviros for (1) telling Congress and regulators that offshore drilling was unsafe but (2) failing to tell regulators how to do it safely.
Environmental groups have seized on the spill to continue their push to ban offshore drilling. Although doing so would reduce the potential for spills in the United States, it would effectively send offshore drilling operations to countries with far weaker environmental standards and require shipping more oil, increasing the likelihood of spills globally.
So, we should permit unsafe drilling here, because if we don’t, there will be unsafe drilling in Nigeria. Apparently, there are no other choices. So what should we do?
Instead, a more nuanced approach is needed. A good first step would be for environmental groups to hire experts with the relevant private-sector experience to comment on regulatory changes to ensure that they are in the best public interest.
In other words, Greenpeace and NRDC are partly to blame for the BP oil disaster and lax MMS regulation, because these environmental groups failed to hire drilling safety experts. And without their comments, regulators never thought to require safe drilling techniques, rigorously tested safety equipment, or credible recovery plans.
Bad enviros. Bad, bad.
It would be interesting to know why the New York Times editors selected this op ed.
Update: NYT Archives, Bush Directive increases Sway on Regulations h/t Froomkin, White House mulling business group’s regulatory hit list