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Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

From the Oval Office, Promises for Gulf Coast Restoration, MMS Rehab


We’ll look at the energy aspects of President Obama’s Tuesday Oval Office address “in the coming days” (as he might say). Meanwhile, we want to focus on two of the most promising elements of the president’s remarks (text here). First, about three minutes in, he pledged to appoint former Mississippi governor and now navy secretary Ray Mabus (a Democrat) to develop a Gulf Coast Restoration Plan.

Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short term, it’s also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region. The oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that’s already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats. And the region still hasn’t recovered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That’s why we must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment. [emphasis added]

I make that commitment tonight. Earlier, I asked Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, who is also a former governor of Mississippi and a son of the Gulf Coast, to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible. The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents. And BP will pay for the impact this spill has had on the region.

The president recognizes that the land and the people of the Gulf Coast are still recovering from the ravages of Katrina and Rita (among other hurricanes) and that the oil industry has wrought damages in the delicate Louisiana marshlands over many decades. We are pleased to hear that a Gulf Coast Restoration Plan will be forthcoming—Obama himself outlined a recovery plan for New Orleans when he was running for president, though not in as fine a detail as John Edwards’s plan—but we want serious follow-up, close monitoring by the White House. To whom does Secretary Mabus report? When is the plan due? Obama says that the plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists, and other Gulf residents.” We’d like to see conservationists closer to the front of that advisory panel, up there with “tribes, fishermen.”

Flushing Out the Augean Stables

The next positive element in the president’s address was the news about the new head of the Minerals Management Service, Michael R. Bromwich, who, we are pleased to see, is not an industry insider. (Sometimes there are benefits to an agency director’s being an insider, but inpectors general and investigative reporters have found that MMS is positively diseased with an excess of insiderdom; the nation’s environment, workers, and economy are suffering and dying as a result.)

Over the last decade, [the MMS] has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility—a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves. At this agency, industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Oil companies showered regulators with gifts and favors, and were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections and write their own regulations.

When Ken Salazar became my Secretary of the Interior, one of his very first acts was to clean up the worst of the corruption at this agency. But it’s now clear that the problem there ran much deeper, and the pace of reform was just too slow. And so Secretary Salazar and I are bringing in new leadership at the agency—Michael Bromwich, who was a tough federal prosecutor and Inspector General. And his charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog—not its partner.

So one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling. [emphasis added]

The Washington Post reports that Bromwich “boasts a long list of watchdog positions.” A Delaware commissioner whose department Bromwich helped clean up says, “He has an unusual, an uncanny ability to identify the problem areas within an agency and a department and identify the potential solutions for them.” Michael Bromwich served for five years as an inspector general in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department and as an associate counsel in the Iran-contra investigation in the late 1980s. Perhaps best of all, the Post notes, his position does not require Senate confirmation. See a profile of Michael R. Bromwich here.

If we can add just one more allusion to Greek mythology, for MMS we don’t just need a watchdog—we need bloody Cerberus (tho’ of course in the legendary labors of Hercules the hero killed the three-headed hellhound after he cleaned out the Augean Stables).


More to come soon on the energy policy aspects of the president’s address (not bad, but not nearly good enough). Stay tuned . . .

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