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Under Cheney’s Influence, Wyoming’s Oil Ties Flooded MMS

A report details the cozy connection between the energy industry and political figures in Wyoming -- especially during the Bush years, when Vice President Dick Cheney placed several allies in important jobs at the Interior Department.

In a speech last week on the disaster unfolding in the Gulf, President Obama told the nation that for decades, there existed a "scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them," and that he took responsibility for a culture that had "not fully changed" under his administration.

On that subject--the culture of coziness between the Minerals Management Service and industry--a nonprofit Wyoming news service, WyoFile, published a report today that details some of the ties between MMS internal culture, the state of Wyoming, and the state's native son, Dick Cheney. From WyoFile:

The elite among Wyoming's legal and engineering professions, including several governors (past and present), have worked for energy industry clients. As a result, presidential administrations seeking an appointee sympathetic to the energy industry can find a plethora of candidates in Wyoming.

The Wyoming connection was especially evident from 2000 to 2008, during the two administrations of President George W. Bush and his vice president, Wyoming native Dick Cheney. A former chief executive of Halliburton, Cheney took an early and very active interest in energy policy and placed several Wyoming political friends in key positions in the Department of Interior.

Cheney drew on his Wyoming ties to help fill the Interior Department's top spots:

Cheney then chose Thomas Sansonetti, a prominent Cheyenne lawyer and GOP activist, to head the team choosing top personnel for the Department of Interior, which oversees Minerals Management Service.

And for the better part of this decade--from 2002 to 2008--the directors of the Minerals Management Service were former Wyoming GOP legislators, Rejane "Johnnie" Burton and Randall Luthi, according to WyoFile.

Burton resigned in 2007 following a scandal over royalty collection. Luthi left when President Obama took office in January 2009. He's now president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group that advocates for the offshore oil and gas industry. (While we're on the subject, it's worth mentioning that his predecessor at NOIA, Tom Fry, was also a former MMS director.)

As we've noted, the ethical lapses within MMS run the gamut: accepting gifts from "good friends" in the industry, applying for industry jobs while at MMS posts, keeping data on offshore drilling away from environmental assessors, failing to collect royalties from industry, using agency equipment for storing and sharing pornography, sleeping with oil and gas representatives, and even working while under the influence of illegal drugs.

Since the Gulf disaster began in April, the Obama administration has proposed a series of reforms, including splitting MMS into three agencies, extending the current 30-day deadline for MMS to review drilling exploration plans in order to allow for additional environmental analysis, and allocating additional funding for inspections. Last week, the agency's director, Elizabeth Birnbaum, left her post.

The Obama administration has also pledged to investigate MMS' liberal use of so-called categorical exclusions to federal environmental law, a practice that has gone on for decades. These exclusions, as we've reported, allowed the agency to sidestep time-intensive environmental reviews and put drilling plans--including BP's plan for the Deepwater Horizon--on the fast track.

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