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House looks into restructuring offshore drilling watchdog agency

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: MMS acting director: "Spill response plans ... will need to be reviewed and amended"
  • House panel holds hearings on how to restructure agency overseeing offshore drilling
  • Subcommittee chair: Proper balance between government and private sector roles needed
  • Office of Inspector General seeks "gaps, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement"

(CNN) Washington -- The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources questioned high-ranking officials from government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and private companies Thursday about how to best divide up the troubled Minerals and Management Service, the government agency that oversees offshore drilling, which has come under greater scrutiny since the Deepwater Horizon incident on April 20.

Acting MMS Director Bob Abbey was one of the witnesses. He said the Gulf oil spill disaster has forced everyone involved with offshore drilling to reconsider their preparedness.

"There's no doubt that the spill response plans that have been previously submitted by the operators in the outer continental shelf will need to be reviewed and amended based upon the lessons that we now have learned," said Abbey. "So the lessees and the operators will be required to go back, revisit their spill response plans and to come in with something that will give not only those of us who are now working in the Minerals Management Service, but the American public, a little more confidence about their abilities to control or contain any future spills," he said.

In May, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled plans to divide the agency's energy development, enforcement and revenue collection divisions, saying they have "conflicting missions."

The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General is "presently in the process of identifying gaps, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement in MMS operations and regulations, with a focus on the permitting process, the inspections and enforcement programs, environmental and safety requirements, and the regulations governing post-incident review or investigation," the department's acting inspector general told the subcommittee Thursday.

Mary Kendall said any plan moving forward "needs to be well thought out and considered before hasty action is taken" to avoid "unexpected and unintended consequences" in a reorganization.

"While the Office of Inspector General has not, in the recent past, conducted any rigorous review of MMS' governing regulations, during the course of other work that the OIG has done we have gained an understanding of some of the regulatory challenges that face MMS," said Kendall.

Democrat Jim Costa, the subcomittee chairman, said, "When it comes to regulations, we must, I think, ask the hard questions on how we strike a proper balance between the role of government and the role of the private sector."

In late May, MMS Director Elizabeth Birnbaum left the agency under a cloud after a series of allegations of misconduct by MMS employees. A report by the Interior Department's inspector general revealed that federal inspectors overseeing oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico accepted meals and tickets to sporting events from companies they monitored.

Salazar called the allegations of MMS corruption "evidence of the cozy relationship between some elements of (the agency) and the oil and gas industry."

He pledged to follow through with the Interior Department inspector general's recommendations, "including taking any and all appropriate personnel actions including termination, discipline and referrals of any wrongdoing for criminal prosecution."