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At this morning’s House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the oil spill, ethics where a major theme

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House Resources Committee Hearing 26 May 2010

The House Resources Committee Hearing was well attended by members, the press and the public

At this morning’s hearing at the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, following opening remarks from Chairman Rahall and Ranking Member Hastings, Secretary Salazar called for a changes to be supported by the House Resources to support two of Secretary Salazar’s main themes:

1. Reform is essential and

2. We need to move to a new energy frontier.

While little of the remarks provided details about new energy, as that topic has been the subject of several prior hearings, there was much discussion by Secretary Salazar and in questions from Chairman Rahall and Ranking Member Hastings about the topic of reform and ethics.

Salazar stated that reform efforts are not new, and that a reform agenda has been on his agenda since he started the job as Secretary of the Interior. In addition to the internal ethics committee investigations and training at DOI/MMS, Sec. Salazar emphasized that congressional action was also needed for reform to be effective. Salazar called for Congress to provide an “organic act” for the Minerals Management Service, and argued the importance of organic authorization for an agency that (a) collects $13 billion a year in funds from oil and gas development and (b) develops the offshore oil and gas resources in the U.S.

Nick Rahall House Resources Chairman 26 May 2010 Hearing

Congressman Nick Rahall is the Chair of the House Resources Committee

Chairman Rahall asked Secretary Salazar if splitting MMS into three parts address the ethics problems that have been highlighted in the Inspector General reports and have the ethics reform package that the Secretary sited really taken hold yet?

Salazar stated that we do think that organizational change is necessary. The reorganization will be moving to remove the revenue collectors and separate them from the leasing and inspection functions of MMS.

Ranking Member Hastings asked if there are people in MMS identified as doing the wrong things, have they been removed from the government payroll?  Salazar responded that if they have done something wrong that requires termination they have been terminated. And some have even been prosecuted and have gone to jail.

But Hastings responded that it is his understanding that some of these people are still on the job. The distinction between removed and still on the job may be because employees named by the IG have been placed on Administrative leave pending further examination of the issues.

While the back and forth about ethics concerns continued, what did not emerge in a concise form was a depiction of what reforms would be possible only through the passage of organic authorization language for MMS compared to what can be changed today based on the authority of the Secretary.

Labels of blame can be suspect in the world of politics, and as such perhaps an accurate analysis will only come in fits and spurts through the Congressional hearing processes. While quite valuable, this will not be our only avenue to determining the cause of the gulf oil spill and also providing recommendations for changes that should occur as we continue to produce oil and gas offshore in the U.S. Last Friday President Obama named a bipartisan commission, chaired by Bob Graham, former Senator and Governor from Florida, and Bill Reilly, the EPA Administrator under President Bush’s Administration. These two chairs, and the five additional Commission members yet to be named, may be our best chance for a balanced and independent review of offshore oil and gas production.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.