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The Spill, The Scandal and the President

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It's tempting to believe that the Gulf spill, like so many disasters inherited by Obama, was the fault of the Texas oilman who preceded him in office. But, though George W. Bush paved the way for the catastrophe, it was Obama who gave BP the green light to drill. "Bush owns eight years of the mess," says Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California. "But after more than a year on the job, Salazar owns it too."

During the Bush years, the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Interior Department charged with safeguarding the environment from the ravages of drilling, descended into rank criminality. According to reports by Interior's inspector general, MMS staffers were both literally and figuratively in bed with the oil industry. When agency staffers weren't joining industry employees for coke parties or trips to corporate ski chalets, they were having sex with oil-company officials. But it was American taxpayers and the environment that were getting screwed. MMS managers were awarded cash bonuses for pushing through risky offshore leases, auditors were ordered not to investigate shady deals, and safety staffers routinely accepted gifts from the industry, allegedly even allowing oil companies to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil before tracing over them in pen.

"The oil companies were running MMS during those years," Bobby Maxwell, a former top auditor with the agency, told Rolling Stone last year. "Whatever they wanted, they got. Nothing was being enforced across the board at MMS."

Salazar himself has worked hard to foster the impression that the "prior administration" is to blame for the catastrophe. In reality, though, the Obama administration was fully aware from the outset of the need to correct the lapses at MMS that led directly to the disaster in the Gulf. In fact, Obama specifically nominated Salazar – his "great" and "dear" friend – to force the department to "clean up its act." For too long, Obama declared, Interior has been "seen as an appendage of commercial interests" rather than serving the people. "That's going to change under Ken Salazar."

Salazar took over Interior in January 2009, vowing to restore the department's "respect for scientific integrity." He immediately traveled to MMS headquarters outside Denver and delivered a beat-down to staffers for their "blatant and criminal conflicts of interest and self-dealing" that had "set one of the worst examples of corruption and abuse in government." Promising to "set the standard for reform," Salazar declared, "The American people will know the Minerals Management Service as a defender of the taxpayer. You are the ones who will make special interests play by the rules." Dressed in his trademark Stetson and bolo tie, Salazar boldly proclaimed, "There's a new sheriff in town."

Salazar's early moves certainly created the impression that he meant what he said. Within days of taking office, he jettisoned the Bush administration's plan to open 300 million acres – in Alaska, the Gulf, and up and down both coasts – to offshore drilling. The proposal had been published in the Federal Register literally at midnight on the day that Bush left the White House. Salazar denounced the plan as "a headlong rush of the worst kind," saying it would have put in place "a process rigged to force hurried decisions based on bad information." Speaking to Rolling Stone in March 2009, the secretary underscored his commitment to reform. "We have embarked on an ambitious agenda to clean up the mess," he insisted. "We have the inspector general involved with us in a preventive mode so that the department doesn't commit the same mistakes of the past." The crackdown, he added, "goes beyond just codes of ethics."

Except that it didn't. Salazar did little to tamp down on the lawlessness at MMS, beyond referring a few employees for criminal prosecution and ending a Bush-era program that allowed oil companies to make their "royalty" payments – the amount they owe taxpayers for extracting a scarce public resource – not in cash but in crude. And instead of putting the brakes on new offshore drilling, Salazar immediately throttled it up to record levels. Even though he had scrapped the Bush plan, Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease in the Gulf in his first year alone – an all-time high. The aggressive leasing came as no surprise, given Salazar's track record. "This guy has a long, long history of promoting offshore oil drilling – that's his thing," says Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "He's got a highly specific soft spot for offshore oil drilling." As a senator, Salazar not only steered passage of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened 8 million acres in the Gulf to drilling, he even criticized President Bush for not forcing oil companies to develop existing leases faster.

Salazar was far less aggressive, however, when it came to making good on his promise to fix MMS. Though he criticized the actions of "a few rotten apples" at the agency, he left long-serving lackeys of the oil industry in charge. "The people that are ethically challenged are the career managers, the people who come up through the ranks," says a marine biologist who left the agency over the way science was tampered with by top officials. "In order to get promoted at MMS, you better get invested in this pro-development oil culture." One of the Bush-era managers whom Salazar left in place was John Goll, the agency's director for Alaska. Shortly after, the Interior secretary announced a reorganization of MMS in the wake of the Gulf disaster, Goll called a staff meeting and served cake decorated with the words "Drill, baby, drill."

Salazar also failed to remove Chris Oynes, a top MMS official who had been a central figure in a multibillion-dollar scandal that Interior's inspector general called "a jaw-dropping example of bureaucratic bungling." In the 1990s, industry lobbyists secured a sweetheart subsidy from Congress: Drillers would pay no royalties on oil extracted in deep water until prices rose above $28 a barrel. But this tripwire was conveniently omitted in Gulf leases overseen by Oynes – a mistake that will let the oil giants pocket as much as $53 billion. Instead of being fired for this fuckup, however, Oynes was promoted by Bush to become associate director for offshore drilling – a position he kept under Salazar until the Gulf disaster hit.

"Employees describe being in Interior – not just MMS, but the other agencies – as the third Bush term," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal whistle-blowers. "They're working for the same managers who are implementing the same policies. Why would you expect a different result?"

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