Tuesday, June 1

Lacking Leadership: Minerals Management Service


With the Obama administration facing its first crisis without a discernible opponent to discredit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently offered up one solution. Blame Bush for the Minerals Management Service, which is the regulatory agency that oversees offshore drilling.

This time around, the excuse seems as desperate as her disgust over being asked whether she would donate hair to help. The reason her allegations seem disingenuous only requires a quick review of the facts.

Minerals Management Service Backgrounder

In the Gulf Coast, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) is partly responsible because it was the one agency that could have pulled the plug on the bad decisions being made. The agency didn't. Even when BP sent unusual rapid-fire requests to modify permits, the agency seemed to keep pace, approving some within as little as five minutes.

Neither BP nor Transocean has commented on the permit changes. And despite the promises of an administration to be more forthcoming and transparent, MMS declines to comment too. Perhaps nobody is talking because they all know the risks.

Sure, MMS had a track record of problems that came to light after the inspector general published a devastating report in 2008. The report revealed ethical lapses related to the MMS royalty collection program and officials at its Lakewood office who had engaged in drug use and sexual activities with industry insiders. But those problems do not necessarily lead to the crisis.

Contrary, according to previous statements from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the agency had already been beaten into submission with reprimands, terminations, and criminal prosecutions. Salazar himself took the lead in reforming what he described as a corrupt culture. But after his house cleaning, it seems Salazar failed to fix the damage.

As soon as Elizabeth Birnbaum, who recently resigned, took charge of MMS about 10 months ago, she found a demoralized agency ill-equipped to meet the new priority of renewable energy. Clicking on the link to the MMS DOI Strategic Plan seems to confirm it. The return reads "file not found."

While there is no plan, it does seem Birnbaum cared and was trying to manage the leaderless agency, funneling most of her energy into offshore wind projects in the Atlantic. And, she wasn't afraid to speak on the Gulf Coast crisis. In fact, she was preparing to testify before a congressional panel about the agency's role in handling BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But Salazar's office didn't want her to testify. She resigned shortly after.

The Missed Opportunity For MMS

Despite its own negligence that contributed to the Deepwater Horizon crisis, standard communication protocol would have called for MMS to take charge of its communication much like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took charge of the crisis created by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) in 2009. So why didn't it?

House Speaker Pelosi already provides the answer. Allowing MMS to become the point team on the crisis communication would have circumvented the administration's ability to deflect responsibility.

So instead of MMS (or the EPA as an alternative) taking the communication lead, the Department of the Interior all but silenced MMS before proceeding to break it up into parts. In place of a centralized communication channel, like we saw with the FDA or even FEMA in the wake of Katrina, the public is given a collection of sometimes contradictory statements about the crisis and who is in control.

Even at the special Deepwater Horizon Response Web site, it is unclear who is responsible for managing the content. It's every agency for themselves. There is no leadership.

Sure, the Deepwater Horizon Response site includes the 15 different agencies and companies that make up the Unified Command, but it does not assign any particular agency or company responsible for updates. While U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen is now identified as the national incident commander, he was also the first to honestly admit that the federal government was not broadly "in charge."

It was this candid, honest response that prompted the American Spectator to call him the only adult on-scene commander for this disaster. Clearly, he ought to be charge if for no other reason than to stop the non-communication coming from Department of Interior, The White House, and other agencies. (Even this weekend, I received a news release from the EPA with nothing more than a visitation tally count among the President and other cabinet members.)

Why all the confusion? The reality seems to be that no one is in control of the spill or the cleanup. And the sheer lack of a centralized communication plan can only be indicative of a top-down failure to establish any centralized leadership.

The international community is just now seizing on this fact, noting that U.S. authorities took unnecessarily long to define the incident as a national disaster and failed to appreciate early enough that BP had no ready and obvious solution for stopping the leak. For them, it's all too obvious in the speeches being delivered by President Obama.

Obama seems to be waffling on whether to call BP a partner or public enemy number one. In one speech, he even drove home the point that his administration was in control but then stressed BP was letting him down as it called the shots. It can't be both. Or can it?

As investigations continue, the administration can expect the questions will become more and more difficult. The international community is already asking why the Obama administration was poised to open up more offshore drilling when they weren't confident in the regulatory agency overseeing it and without an emergency oil spill response plan.

So far, instead of answering those questions, President Obama has pledged to bring those responsible to justice. Ironically, such a move might include his administration; if not for the leak, then for the containment of it.

A special thanks to Geoff Livingston for inviting me to discuss some of these issues on his online radio show, EL Show, today. Tomorrow, we'll present some ideas on how the administration could attempt to turn the crisis communication failure around.

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