AP's Matthew Daly:
An administration official who asked not to be identified because the plan is not yet public said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will urge that Congress approve 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.
Currently, the Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department, is responsible for collecting more than $10 billion a year from oil and gas drilling and with enforcing 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.
An internal investigation in 2008 described a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" by workers at the 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.
The idea of separating revenue and leasing functions from safety and inspection seems prudent, particularly in light of the history of corruption at MMS. Other nations -- for example, Britain, Norway, and Australia -- have taken the same step. It's also worth keeping in mind that while MMS does have oversight over oil drilling, it also has oversight over mining and other methods of resource extraction.
While this may be a good step, it's also important to remember that there really is no way to absolutely guarantee the safety of operations like oil drilling. Even if we cut the likelihood of another BP Deepwater spill by 50%, that's still too high because of the magnitude of the damage that the spill can cause.
So even as we realign the safety functions of the MMS, we must realize we're merely making a fundamentally flawed system less intolerable. Our real mission is to develop clean alternative sources of energy, to improve the efficiency of our energy-consuming machinery, and to decrease the amount of energy we waste. If any good can come out of this spill, it's to underscore the fundamental truth that we must break our addiction to oil.
Until we reach that point, a more effective MMS is essential, but let's not forget -- it's just a Band-aid, albeit an important one.