Commentary: MMS split should have been made sooner

The oil spill is in the Gulf of Mexico. The post-disaster hearings are taking place in Louisiana and in Washington, D.C. But in North Carolina we should be paying the utmost attention. Our coast, too, is at risk from an overconfident drilling industry, overeager politicians and an incompetent federal regulatory agency.

That agency is the federal Minerals Management Service, and yes, it's the outfit whose employees were found to be — literally — in bed with energy industry representatives two years ago.

The MMS agency's problems, however, go deeper than any sex and drugs scandal. It is a prime example of the back-and-forth exchange of top managers between industry and government that occurs all too frequently in Washington. The last MMS director in the Bush-Cheney administration, who boasted of huge oil and gas leasing deals during his tenure there, is now president of the National Ocean Industries Association, pressing for "policies favorable to the offshore energy industry." And why not? At the MMS, federal regulation has increasingly become industry self-regulation.

Furthermore, the agency's effectiveness is severely compromised by a glaring conflict of interest. The MMS is both the regulator of the offshore drilling industry and the chief collector of oil and gas leasing revenue and production royalties for the federal government. When it comes to staffing, the money end of the operation wags the regulatory tail. Of its 1,700 employees, the agency has about 60 safety inspectors.

That conflict was addressed Tuesday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. MMS will be split into two divisions, one dealing with safety and the other with money. And more inspectors will be added.

Good — but months too late. This was a modest reform — after all, the two divisions would still operate within the same department — that had been suggested in plenty of time to be put into effect much earlier in the Obama administration. It should have been.

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