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US splits agency

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Salazar Urges Splitting Energy Agency
Interior secretary to call for splitting up agency overseeing offshore drilling
The Associated Press
By MATTHEW DALY Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON May 11, 2010 (AP)

The Obama administration is proposing to split up an Interior Department agency that oversees offshore drilling, as part of its response to the Gulf Coast oil spill, The Associated Press has learned.

An administration official who asked not to be identified because the plan is not yet public said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will call for splitting the Minerals Management Service in two. One agency would be charged with inspecting oil rigs, investigating oil companies and enforcing safety regulations, while the other would oversee leases for drilling and collection of billions of dollars in royalties.

The Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department, oversees the nation's natural gas, oil and other mineral resources. The agency collects and distributes more than $13 billion per year in revenues from federal leases for offshore and onshore drilling. It also enforces laws and regulations that apply to drilling operations.

Some critics have said the two roles are in conflict and are one reason the agency has long been accused of being too cozy with the oil and natural gas industry. There is growing bipartisan sentiment in Congress in favor of toughening oversight of MMS. At a minimum, lawmakers want to ensure that the agency's director is a Senate-confirmed position.

The current director, Elizabeth Birnbaum, was appointed by President Barack Obama but did not require Senate confirmation.

An administration official said Interior Secretary Salazar has the authority to split up the agency, but is likely to propose other changes Tuesday that would require congressional approval.

An internal investigation in 2008 described a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" by workers at the minerals agency. The investigation by Interior's inspector general found workers at the MMS royalty collection office in Denver partied, had sex with and used drugs with energy company representatives. Workers also accepted gifts, ski trips and golf outings, the report by Inspector General Earl E. Devaney said.

 
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