Good WSJ Probe Shows Oil Regulator’s Capture

The Wall Street Journal has a great investigation on Minerals Management Service, the regulator supposed to oversee oil drilling.

The headline alone ought to make your blood boil:

Regulator Ceded Oversight Of Rig Safety to Oil Drillers

Great idea, Regulator!

A Wall Street Journal examination of the MMS’s track record found several instances of the agency identifying potential safety problems and then either not requiring follow-up or relying on the industry to craft a solution. In some cases, the industry didn’t do its part…

The Journal has identified instances in which MMS didn’t follow through on potential safety problems that the agency had asked the industry to examine. In 2000, the agency asked the industry for advice on how to deal with problems with cement used to keep oil and natural gas from bubbling to the surface and exploding. A decade later, the industry is still working on its recommendations, according to the American Petroleum Institute. No regulations have been issued by the agency.


To explain its shift toward industry self-regulation, the MMS in a 2005 rule change pointed to a 1996 law that encouraged federal agencies to “benefit from the expertise of the private sector” by adopting industry standards. Mr. Herbst also pointed out that the MMS often has a seat on panels setting industry standards.

This is a good story, but the Journal could have taken it further. This all part of the anti-regulation philosophy that dominated Washington for three decades, and there are clear parallels to the failures of the financial system.

That’s the Big Picture.

The Financial Times, by contrast, makes the regulation connection in its lede, but its story is thin.

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who’s done some great watchdog stuff recently, is on this:

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Issa said MMS had since 2003 failed to hold oil companies’ feet to the fire and force the implementation of guaranteed safety mechanisms that could have prevented the Deepwater disaster.

“In 2003, MMS knew that these safety devices weren’t totally safe. [But] does MMS care when bad things happen, or do they care about declines in [oil] revenue?” Mr Issa said. “That’s the reason this is a scandal not of the Obama administration or the Bush administration, but of this bureaucracy that has failed the American people.”

Uh huh. When a politician generously denies political culpability for both parties, you can bet his own is at fault. Does anybody seriously believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney didn’t weaken oil regulation during their two terms?

Come on.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.