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More Spill Cleanup: Splitting the Minerals Management Service

Cleaning up the oil is the order of the day. But to keep things like this from happening again, it seems like we'll also want to adjust how safety assessments happen, especially given BP's reputation as a fix-it-as-it-breaks operation. So this news, from Juliet Eilperin at the Post Carbon blog, is welcome by me:
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Tuesday he had commissioned an independent review of the BP oil spill and will split the Minerals Management Service into two parts "to assure the American people we will have a strong and independent organization holding energy companies accountable and in compliance with the laws of the land." ...

The split will create a new Office of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, separate from the office that will oversee drilling permits and the collection of federal royalties from drilling operations.

Salazar, who noted that MMS brings in an average of $13 billion a year in royalties, said he was making the change "so there is no conflict, real or perceived, with respect to those functions."

But several points remained unclear, including whether the safety and environmental enforcement office would be able to veto drilling permits issued by MMS.

I can't claim to understand exactly how these bureaucracies function. It could be that this is just for show. But it does seem pretty obvious that you don't want one agency, with a single management apparatus, both collecting the money and evaluating the safety when it comes to drilling operations.

That said, splitting the agency won't necessary fix a problem of compromised oversight in and of itself. As Eilperin notes, even if you have a dilligent, independent Office of Safety, it won't be effective without real power to scuttle questionable projects. It wouldn't necessarily have to be veto power. The Office of Safety could just have the power to stall projects forever until they met some standard. But it has to have power.

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