Agency Learns to Heed Local Voices : Bureaucracy: Minerals Management Service found many offshore oil projects stymied because of protests over its unilateral decisions.


The federal agency known for riding roughshod over local governments to promote offshore oil drilling has adopted a kinder, gentler approach.

Taking cues from President Bush, the Minerals Management Service is following a new policy that emphasizes “resolution of conflicts” with local authorities and “responding with sensitivity to the concerns of residents of areas affected by offshore development.”

J. Lisle Reed, director of the agency’s Pacific Region, has taken the new direction a step further.


Twice in the last 18 months, he has brought in an expert from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lecture his staff on “active” listening, being more open to the public and on other techniques to put a human face on government bureaucracy.

“It’s not business as usual,” said Dena Winham, a longtime employee of the Minerals Management Service regional office that recently moved from Los Angeles to Camarillo. “Lisle brought in an expert in public participation and risk communication and has hammered into us that this is a different era and we don’t run roughshod over anybody.”

The new approach was born of necessity, Minerals Management Service officials said. During the Reagan Administration, local and state agencies rose up in protest over unilateral decisions by the MMS and stymied many offshore oil projects.

So far, only 17 of the 97 three-mile-square tracts leased in the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Maria Basin have been fully developed. Oil industry representatives said they have great hope that the agency’s new emphasis on resolving conflicts will loosen permits from state and local governments and get offshore development moving again.

“We realized that if we are going to make any headway, we are going to have to try much harder to meet the demands of the states and coastal communities because their questions are very legitimate,” said Tom DeRocco, top Washington spokesman for the Minerals Management Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior.

So far, the agency’s new personality is applauded by area officials who handle offshore oil issues. They said they appreciate a federal agency that considers their views in decisions that often greatly affect their communities and the surrounding environment.


“Traditionally, the feds have gone ahead unilaterally, without the involvement of the states or communities,” said Ventura City Councilman Todd Collart, who is also a planner for Ventura County. “As a result, there has been a considerable amount of concern and anger.”

Yet, some environmentalists remain skeptical.

“We have yet to see more than a public relations effort,” said Richard Charter, an offshore oil drilling opponent who represents 30 city and county governments on the issue.

Charter said that the Minerals Management Service has largely interpreted California’s concern about expanded offshore drilling as a mistaken perception of the risks of a major spill.

He believes those public concerns have been strongly reinforced in recent years by the powerful images of oil-soaked sea otters dying in the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the American Trader tanker spill that closed beaches in Orange County.

“The public knows that oil activity places the beaches and marine life at great risk,” Charter said. “I don’t think some kind of touchy-feely, user-friendly kind of approach is going to change anybody’s mind.”

Reed, a man with a patient, folksy manner, agrees that the new approach has yet to meet the stress test of a controversial decision. “We just haven’t had much activity to test it yet,” he said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”


Until 1988, Reed was one of the top civil servants in the Interior Department with wide authority over government programs. He left the nation’s capital to take a much lower ranked job as regional director and to pursue his passion for riding horses.

Since then, he has set up several working groups to iron out controversies such as what to do with toxic waste generated from drilling for oil. He said he plans to involve state and local authorities in decisions on every drilling permit.

He also arranged for Alvin Chun, an EPA environmental health adviser, to teach Minerals Management Service staff how to be more receptive to the public. “The message is for technical staff,” Chun said. “We stress to be honest with people, be open with them and don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Some officials have praised Reed’s efforts. “He’s done an awful lot to improve relations between our agency and his,” said Bill Douros, deputy energy director of Santa Barbara County. “It is not nearly as antagonistic as it used to be.”

Minerals Management Service Director Barry A. Williamson said Reed has his blessing to work closely with state and local officials. “But,” he said, “the ultimate policy decisions rest with the federal government.”