The sexual politics of offshore drilling

Some Democrats argue that the sex-drugs-and-oil scandal is reason enough to prohibit offshore drilling. Not exactly

Published September 12, 2008 7:25PM (EDT)

Is the enthusiasm expressed by some employees of the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) for snorting speed off of toaster ovens and tawdry one-night stands with oil industry employees reason enough to halt the drive for more offshore drilling?

Phil Gutis, director of communications at the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests as much:

I'm sure we'll hear more about this as the story develops, but this latest scandal should stop the push for drilling in its tracks. The reality is that oil is a limited resource and it will eventually run out.

Some Democratic senators have voiced similar sentiments:

From the Associated Press:

"This is why we must not allow Big Oil's agenda to be jammed through Congress," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.... He said the report "shows the oil industry holds shocking sway over the administration and even key federal employees."

"This IG report has it all -- sex, drugs and the Bush administration officials once again in cahoots with Big Oil," said Sen. Charles Schumer...

As usual, Geoffrey Styles, a former oil trader for Texaco, offers a thoughtful take. After providing some useful insight into how the MMS Royalty-in-Kind (RIK) program works, he suggests that there is an element of truth to the idea that MMS was a bit of an odd-duck, half government agency and half oil company.

Participating in the oil market to the extent of 190,000 barrels per day, around 4 percent of total U.S. production, made the MMS a very big player in a segment of the energy business that is highly social. You need to trust the people you do business with, because you must be able to rely on their help when you have a problem, and vice versa. Often, that trust is built by getting to know them over a meal, or at a sporting event. As I've mentioned many times, I traded oil and petroleum products for Texaco on the West Coast during the 1980s and early 1990s. Although I certainly never witnessed or heard of the kind of excesses noted by the Inspector General, I believe that in the absence of a strict organizational and personal code of conduct, the opportunities for someone to go seriously astray in that environment remain significant...

My purpose in this posting is not to excuse misbehavior -- not a bit of it. However, the stakes in the current energy crisis are too high to permit this incident or the broad generalizations it will spawn to influence the policies that determine how much energy the U.S. will produce for itself in the years ahead, and how much we must continue to import, to the detriment of our trade balance and financial health. The events in question, however distasteful, by no means prove that royalties cannot be collected properly, or that oil companies can't be trusted to deal fairly with the government. All that is required for RIK to work on an arms-length and professional basis is clear and frequently-articulated policies and determined oversight. So by all means, ferret out those responsible, punish anyone who broke the public's trust, and ensure that the Treasury collected what it was due. But exploiting this incident to hold back domestic oil and gas production will cost the U.S. public far more in the long run than any malfeasance that might be uncovered in the MMS.

Reasonable people can take issue with Styles' conviction that the U.S. needs to ramp up domestic production of offshore oil and gas. But I think his core point is on the money: This scandal does not illustrate whether or not offshore drilling is a good or bad idea. What it demonstrates is that lax, irresponsible government is a bad idea. A core reason why How the World Works looks askance at Bush administration efforts to do the bidding of the oil industry -- and make no mistake, offshore drilling benefits oil companies more than it benefits anyone else -- is that there is no reason to believe those efforts are in good faith. Offshore drilling, as part of a comprehensive energy platform that included environmental sustainability, development of alternative sources of energy, conservation and energy efficiency, could make sense, if we had faith in the integrity of the government officials entrusted in implementing the agenda.

That faith is currently in short supply, and the behavior of a dozen or so MMS employees is just one reason why.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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