Feds Look As Bad As Oil Companies Following Spill

Todd Shriber
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When it comes to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which may eventually prove to be the worst spill in U.S. history, there is no shortage of distributable blame. BP, the operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig, is pointing fingers at Transocean (RIG). Transocean built the rig and is saying the explosion and resulting spill are the fault of BP. Cameron International and Halliburton have taken their turns as whipping boys as well. Even Anadarko Petroluem (APC), a company that merely held a 25% non-operating interest in the rig, has been skewered a bit.

So from the corporate side, there is basically a buffet of villains on whom to place some blame. In many ways, the federal government has facilitated the blame game. What did Congress expect when they trotted executives from BP (BP), Cameron (CAM), Halliburton (HAL) and Transocean out to Capitol Hill? Now that we are more than a month removed from the rig explosion and the progress made on cleaning up the spill has been less than impressive, the public is growing tired of this fiasco dominating the nightly news and that has more than a few fingers pointing at the White House.

Regardless of how one feels about President Obama, it is hard to place most of, or even a lot of blame for the rig explosion and oil spill at his doorstep. That said, the government does look pretty bad and that needs to be acknowledged. Presidents come and go because they only serve four or eight years and heads of federal agencies come and go with each new presidential administration. This is relevant because it helps explain why many of the things that could have prevented the explosion and oil spill were never implemented.

It also highlights why the government, meaning Congress and certain agency staffers, need to be held accountable. After all, many congressmen and agency staffers hold their jobs for longer than eight years. The Obama Administration says it is pressuring BP to get moving on the cleanup effort, keeping a ''boot on the neck'' of the company, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Frankly, if there had been more boots on the necks of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency that collects royalties from energy firms and is supposed to be the watch dog of offshore drillers, the spill may have been prevented. Outside of the IRS, no government agency collects more revenue for the Treasury Department than MMS. That should be enough for politicians to be motivated to keep a more watchful eye on the agency.

On Tuesday, the Interior Department's inspector general released a report that showed MMS employees received gifts from oil industry executives, things like meals, tickets to sporting events and hunting and fishing expeditions. These perks for MMS employees may or may not have been intended to encourage the staffers to look other way when it came to rig safety, but since April 20, it has become apparent that MMS was lapse at doing its job and something should have been done about that years ago.

That is why it is fair to argue that the government deserves some of the blame for the tragedy in the Gulf. Regardless of who controls Congress and the White House, the federal government has a tradition of only reacting to disasters and tragedies after those situations become disasters and tragedies. The Gulf spill probably could have been prevented, that much we know now, and MMS could have played a part in that prevention. In other words, the agency could have done its job, but it did not, and for that reason it deserves some of the blame.