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Interior Secretary Salazar provides details on plan for Minerals Management Service

By David A. Fahrenthold and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; 7:03 PM

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar provided new details Wednesday about his plan to break up the Minerals Management Service, saying three new agencies would divide the duties of leasing offshore parcels for energy projects, policing safety rules, and collecting royalties.

"These three missions . . . are conflicting missions and must be separated," Salazar said, adding that subordinates were given 30 days to work out a schedule for the split.

Thursday is the one-month anniversary of the explosion at the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which has led to a massive oil spill that neither the federal government nor BP has been able to stop.

The Minerals Management Service had been criticized for its coziness with the energy industry, which provides the royalty money that partially funds it. Last week, Salazar said the service would be divided into two parts: one to handle leasing and royalty collection, and another to enforce safety and environmental rules. On Wednesday, Salazar said, there would be three new agencies.

About 700 of the agency's 1,700 employees would be shifted to the new Office of Natural Resources Revenue, which would take over the job of collecting royalties from energy projects on federal land and the ocean floor. Those royalties, from energy projects both on-shore and off, come to about $13 billion per year.

About another 700 employees would go to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which would oversee the leasing of parcels of the ocean floor for oil or gas rigs, or for renewable energy projects like wind farms. And 300 employees would go to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement: "This will be the police of offshore oil and gas operations," Salazar said.

A spokeswoman for Salazar said it was unclear if the funds for this bureau would continue to come from royalties.

At a press conference in Robert, Louisiana, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the company was now capturing 3,000 barrels of oil per day, up from 2,000, by using a tube inserted into the leaking "riser" pipe on the gulf floor. But he said it might be Sunday, or even early next week, before they attempt to plug the gushing well with an injection of heavy "kill mud." Salazar had previously said that might happen Saturday.

Suttles said that calm seas had enabled the company to have four surface burns of an hour each on Tuesday and more burns on Wednesday, including one that lasted more than two hours. He said that in addition to the oil, the company was also capturing 14 million cubic feet a day of natural gas.

More crude oil -- rust-brown and sticky -- infiltrated the grassy marshes at the tip of the Mississippi River delta Wednesday, despite efforts to increase the flow of the river and beat back the approaching oil slick.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who toured the scene by boat Wednesday morning, renewed his plea for an emergency permit from the federal government to build a new series of barrier islands, or "sand booms," to protect the coast from the oil spill.

"We know we've got cancer. We know we need treatment. We know we've already had some damage. We have to stop this cancer from spreading," Jindal said.

Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser, whose jurisdiction follows the Mississippi to its mouth, joined Jindal in another press conference at a marina in Venice, La. He expressed his great frustration that the Army Corps of Engineers has not yet responded to his petition for a permit to dredge.

"Everything that blanket of oil is covering today will die," Nungesser said. "There's no way to clean it up."

He went on: "We lost a battle today. We've got to win this war. Failure is not an option. Where we're standing today -- there will be no marina, there will be no fishing. If this continues, everything will be dead for many years."

State officials said the first oil-covered sea turtle--a baby Kemp's Ridley sea turtle--had been found in oily waters 33 nautical miles from land. Officials said the turtle was alive on Tuesday evening, and had been given a "thorough cleaning" with Dawn soap and a toothbrush.

It will be watched until it is well enough to be released, the state said.

Meanwhile the U.S. Coast Guard announced that the tar balls discovered this week on beaches in the Florida Keys did not come from the leaking BP well. After testing them at the Marine Safety Laboratory in New London, Conn., the Coast Guard said the chemical signature of the oil in these tar balls did not match the oil from the BP spill. It said the source of these tar balls is unknown; oil regularly spills into the Gulf of Mexico from leaking pipelines and natural "seeps" on the seafloor.

Achenbach reported from Venice, La. Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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