A Culture of Failure


[O]ur investigation revealed an organizational culture lacking acceptance of government ethical standards, inappropriate personal behaviors, and a program without the necessary internal controls in place to prevent future unethical or unlawful behavior.

                    - Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Interior, Investigative Report, MMS Oil Marketing Group, Aug. 19, 2008

As if you needed a reminder, we may be in the midst of the most significant environmental catastrophe in our nation’s history.  As you read this, as much as 800,000 gallons of oil a day flows into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, and has been since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig.  With no end in sight, this event could ultimately be the largest oil spill the world has ever experiencedAnd of course, the eventual impact to the natural environment, and the people of the Gulf coast region, may not be known for quite some time now.

Search for blame, however, is well underway, with both industry and regulators squarely in the sights of politicians, environmentalists, and the public.  Indeed, while it remains unclear exactly what the White House has done, or could do, to stop the flow of oil, the President has made it perfectly clear that his outrage over the spill has reached “the upper scale” and is directed at both at BP and federal regulators.   Remarkably, it seems to have come as a shock to the President when “he learned of some of the ‘shortcomings’ at the Minerals Management Service and its ‘coziness’ with an industry it’s supposed to regulate.”

But let’s be blunt – it comes as no shock to environmental justice advocates throughout the West that the government has come up short in regulating major sources of pollution that impact our environment and communities.  The question many of us have been asking well before it rose to the attention of the White House is “what, or whose, interest do regulator’s have in mind when making decisions to permit additional gas development, power plants, refineries, etc.?”   Even if we accept, as the U.S. Department of Interior’s Inspector General did in 2008 when investigating the pervasive mismanagement and unethical behavior of the Minerals Management Service, that 90 percent of regulators are hardworking, ethical men and women, there is still a considerable culture of regulatory failure in this nation.  This failure that has left many Americans vulnerable to the corporations that pollute their communities.

So what is the point?  Well, for the time being it remains as important as ever that individuals and communities take the initiative to build green, healthy communities and jobs.  We need make an extra effort to see past the regulatory failures, like the Gulf spill, and identify the community successes.  All around the West, community advocates are succeeding where the regulators have failed.   We only need, for instance, to look at the success of the people of Richmond, California, who just days after the Deep Horizon accident occurred managed to stop the expansion of a refinery in their community owned by oil giant Chevron.  (Ironically, it was Chevron that was specifically identified in the Inspector General’s MMS Investigative Report as “refus[ing] . . . to cooperate with our investigation.”)

Admittedly, the BP oil spill is a depressing event, and can easily lead to a sense of doom over the state of environmental regulation in this nation.  But this would be to ignore the power of advocacy.  In the words of the people of Richmond, “Today, our community beat the odds.  We stood up to [an] oil giant . . . one of the world’s largest corporations, and won!”  Fortunately, theirs is not an isolated story, as long as we remain assiduous in our work, more victories are sure to come.

Author’s note:  For those interested in assisting in the environmental justice efforts to address the impact of the BP oil spill on communities along the Gulf coast, please contact the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Michael Harris is Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. He has worked as a Senior Deputy District Counsel for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, as an Associate Environmental Counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a Project Attorney with Earthjustice. He can be reached at elc@law.du.edu.