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US: Impact of BP's slick spreads to the authorities

The Minerals Management Service (MMS), the body blamed for ineffectual oversight of deep-water drilling in the Gulf, is to break up

PRESIDENT Barack Obama suggests too "cosy" a relationship between the oil industry and the authorities that regulate it may have contributed to lax rules in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP's oil slick continues to spread. Now Ken Salazar, the interior minister, has announced the break-up of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the body blamed for ineffectual oversight of deep-water drilling in the Gulf.

The restructuring creates three new bodies: Ocean Energy Management, which will oversee licensing of drilling permits; Safety and Environmental Enforcement; and Natural Resources Revenue, responsible for collection of royalties.

Salazar said the dismantling of the MMS would allow the new authorities to "carry out these three separate and equally important missions with greater effectiveness and transparency". He added that it would also "strengthen oversight" of offshore drilling and "help our country build the clean energy we need".

The MMS is unlikely to escape yet more censure from the interior secretary. Anger in Washington, and in the general public, has risen since it emerged that in the days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig the agency approved another 26 offshore drilling applications.

And several politicians have been vocal in their criticism of the body. The MMS also routinely issued waivers to companies exempting them from conducting environmental-impact analysis of their operations. Some reports said last month that BP received such a waiver for its Macondo well, scene of the blowout in April.

The speed of the government's actions in dismantling the MMS will worry the oil companies. Congress' gaze has already begun to focus on BP, as well as on the firms it hired to drill the well: Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron. The MMS may be found guilty of not policing the oil industry effectively – but the oil spewing out of the blown well belongs to BP and the infrastructure that failed was installed by at least one of its contractors.

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