Amidst Senate hearing and other investigations into the causes and guilty parties linked to last month’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent oil spill, the US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced Tuesday that he is making some important changes to the Minerals Management Service. This bureau within the Department of the Interior is tasked with both issuing permits for extracting natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS), and also collecting the royalty fees from such activities.
This dual role has long been the target of speculation and seen as an inherent conflict of interest in the agency’s structure. Salazar said the new office within the agency–the Office of Safety and Environmental Enforcement–will operate separately from the agency’s offshore oil and gas leasing operations, “so there is no conflict, real or perceived, with respect to those functions,” according to the Washington Post.The new plan for the agency was greeted warmly by Democrats and Republicans alike. “Given this disaster in the Gulf, one has to ask whether leasing and safety policing are like oil and water and simply do not mix,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, according to the Associated Press.
And Francesca Grifo, director of the Union for Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program, said in a statement that “putting one agency in charge of enforcing safety regulations and collecting billions of dollars in oil and gas royalties was asking for trouble. Separating these functions would benefit all parties involved—the Department of Interior, the American public, and the oil companies that must rebuild public trust.”
This isn’t the first time such reform within the MMS has been proposed, notes the Post. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, made a proposal last year that would have removed lease management from the Interior Department and formed a separate group for the duty. That, of course, was before the conflict of interest was linked to a major ecological disaster.
Still, the MMS is no stranger to trouble. Its Denver office was embroiled in a drug and sex scandal back in 2008. And under the Bush administration, the people overseeing the MMS had ties to then VP Dick Cheney, who had ties to Halliburton, which is deeply involved in offshore oil extraction and, in fact, the Deepwater Horizon drill. According to the New York Times, a former Interior Department inspector once called the MMS an “ethical wasteland.”