Democrat questions MMS realignment

A key House Democrat raised concerns on Monday about the way the Obama administration is splitting up the Interior Department agency that oversees offshore drilling, part of its response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The proposed realignment of the Minerals Management Service is a "step in the right direction to make the agency more transparent and accountable" wrote Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

But Grijalva wants Salazar to explain why the government's leasing function under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act -- where environmental compliance would take place -- would still remain under the segment of the newly divided MMS that handles royalties rather than the new enforcement entity.

"How will the newly proposed division of MMS affect industry behavior to prevent future disasters?" Grijalva asked in a letter.

The splitting of MMS, as announced by Salazar, comes as critics have questioned whether the dual duties of the agency -- collecting royalties from the oil industry and enforcing regulations that could impact companies' bottom lines -- had conflicted.

Under the MMS organization following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, one part of the agency is now to be charged with inspections of rigs and enforcing safety regulations, while the other would oversee leases for drilling and collection of billions of dollars in royalties. But Grijalva, who is opposed to deep-water drilling operations altogether, wants Salazar to explain why the leasing function and its environmental-compliance oversight would not be more appropriately located within the enforcement part of the agency.

There was no immediate response to Grijalva's letter Monday from the Interior Department.

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