Ex-Interior Secy: EPA Should Oversee Offshore Ops

Former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Sunday on Platts Energy Week that enforcement of offshore oil and gas operations should be moved from the Interior Department to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

In an interview with program host Bill Loveless, Babbitt said a proposed reorganization by Ken Salazar, the current interior secretary, to form a separate office for offshore enforcement at Interior is insufficient to protect against major accidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. 

"I think Salazar is basically rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic," Babbitt said on the TV program, which airs on W*USA in Washington, D.C. 

"I think we need a much more structured reform," he said. "The Interior Department can supervise collecting the money and giving licenses, but we need an absolutely independent regulator, and I think EPA's the logical choice." 

Salazar in May proposed breaking Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) into three separate offices responsible for issuing permits for offshore wells, collecting revenue from those operations and enforcing safety requirements. 

Salazar called for the overhaul in response to claims that lax oversight by MMS had contributed to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig working on a deepwater well owned by BP and other companies. 

Those claims, combined with reports from Congress and Interior's inspector general of inappropriate contacts between MMS personnel and the industry, have triggered calls by some lawmakers that Salazar's proposal does not go far enough. 

"The industry has essentially been self-regulating," said Babbitt, a Democrat, who was President Bill Clinton's interior secretary from 1993 to 2001. "It may have been OK in the day when all the drilling was on land, and the consequences of an accident weren't that great. But over time, the industry has gone from land to shallow water to deepwater and ultra deepwater, and the risks have ratcheted enormously, and the regulatory process has not kept up with it." 

Babbitt said lighter regulation of industries generally, across both Democratic and Republican administrations, influenced policies at MMS. But he maintained that the changes grew distorted during the administration of President George W. Bush. 

"The corruption that has crept into the agency is a relatively recent phenomenon coming out of the deregulatory ethic that crept up during the Bush administration," he said.

In addition to regulatory reforms, Babbitt called for an oil and gas industry organization to promote safe practices. He said a model is the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, which the nuclear energy industry formed after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. 

Babbitt served on a commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter to investigate the Three Mile Island accident. 

Babbitt also said he has offered advice to the White House, where President Barack Obama is forming a commission to look into the Deepwater Horizon disaster. 

"Stay away from politicians and look far and wide for non-industry technical expertise," he said. "You don't want industry people but you do want people who understand the industry. That drives you to a fair number of people who have academic experience in this area. And find people who have no stake in the outcome of the deliberations."

Obama in May named former Florida Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former Environmental Protection Agency Director William Reilly, a Republican, to head the commission. So far, Graham and Reilly are the only ones appointed to the commission.