Oil industry ties to government: Why CLEAR Act reforms are essential

K Street in Washington DC. Photo by wallyg, Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/3642372137/

Those following the energy industry over the past several years, including during the Bush Administration, are familiar with the close relationship between the industry and federal government agencies. This relationship has come under the microscope since the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began in April. Since then, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar broke apart the highly-criticized Minerals Management Service that oversees offshore drilling.

Calls to take this sort of action aren't new. The Wilderness Society has been seeking reforms for years and the New York Times called for just the sort of action that Secretary Salazar took shortly after he was nominated in late 2008.

Even the most cynical might be shocked at the depth and pervasiveness of the close relationship between energy industry lobbyists, Congress and federal agencies. The Washington Post reported today that three out of four oil and gas lobbyists in DC have worked in the federal government. Many of these lobbyists come from very high positions in government...

"Key lobbying hires include 18 former members of Congress and dozens of former presidential appointees. For other senior management positions, the industry employs two former directors of the Minerals Management Service, the since-renamed agency that regulates the industry, and several top officials from the Bush White House. Federal inspectors once assigned to monitor oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico have landed jobs with the companies they regulated."

Letting the foxes guard the hen house became institutionalized during the Bush administration. As we and many others reported, a certain level of collusion between the oil industry and top levels of the Bush administration occurred frequently. A legacy of these years remains in the form of close ties between government regulators and industry. There are now over 600 registered lobbyists in DC working for the energy industry and industry spending on lobbying has nearly doubled since April.

Many in Congress recognize that reform is long overdue and stronger measures need to be taken. The CLEAR Act now before Congress is intended to address numerous problems with energy industry oversight and review. Key pieces of CLEAR Act reforms include:

  • Expedited environmental reviews should be eliminated, and federal agencies should be given more time to review the oil and gas industry's plans before approval.
  • Safety and response plans should be in place before they are needed. Audits of royalty payments should be required, with a fair return to taxpayers.
  • Federal oversight of leasing, auditing and inspections should be divided into separate bureaus with separate responsibility.
  • Stricter lobbying rules for former Interior employees should be implemented.

These reforms can help prevent another disaster in the Gulf but also in and around the tens of thousands of active and proposed drilling operations across the country and along other U.S. coasts.

Photo: K Street in Washington, DC, by wallyg.