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Chris Oynes and the Louisiana MMS Office « The Washington Independent

The New York Times published a mammoth story yesterday on the Minerals Management Service office in Louisiana, its leader, Chris Oynes, and the state’s dependence on the oil industry. Oynes, who left the agency in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill, had not spoken publicly before now.

He offered “few regrets,” the Times writes, and said he thought his office “had done a pretty good job of addressing the challenges that come with deep water.”

MMS offices across the country have struggled with their tight relationship with the industries they regulate. Stories of hard-partying officials spinning through the revolving door generally portray these offices as self-contained sites of corruption. The Times, on the other hand, takes pains to demonstrate that in Louisiana, the camaraderie between the regulators and the industry was a natural outgrowth of the state’s love-affair with oil drilling. The article casts Oynes as steady figure who valued the economic contributions the industry made to Louisiana and who, with limited resources and power, raced to catch regulations up with rapidly advancing technology.

But by the end of the story, that argument begins breaking down. First, it turns out that Oynes deferred an important decision about the environmental impact of a deepwater drilling technique to the office’s head engineer — who was later fired “for accepting gifts from a drilling company, and [who] pleaded guilty to lying on his ethics forms,” according to the Times — a story typical of problematic MMS offices elsewhere.

Early in the story, Oynes points to a regulatory office he helped set up as an improvement in oversight, but, later we find out that, according an inspector general report, the office is:

“an ethics-free zone, where inspectors routinely took industry gifts and did favors for industry friends. They went hunting and fishing on the companies’ tab, accepted company meals, went skeet shooting at the companies’ expense, and in one case flew on a private plane to watch Louisiana State University in the Peach Bowl.”

And Oynes himself comes off as less than sanguine about a National Marine Fisheries Service proposal to put independent overseers on boats testing for oil:

“He was screaming at the top of his lungs,” said a former agency scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears government reprisals. “He said, “N.M.F.S. is trying to shut down oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico!’ ”

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