INTERIOR:

Clinton-era secretary blasts department; scientists say Salazar should quit

The Interior Department is under attack from a former department chief who said it is incapable of overseeing offshore drilling and from a group of scientists and environmental groups calling for its current head to be fired.

Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary under President Clinton, said Interior's Minerals Management Service lacks the tools to provide adequate environmental oversight of offshore oil and gas operations and the job should instead fall to U.S. EPA.

"The Interior Department can supervise collecting the money and giving the licenses but we need an absolutely independent regulator, and I think EPA is the logical choice," Babbitt said yesterday on the TV program "Platts Energy Week."

Last month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a massive overhaul of MMS, breaking the agency into three separate offices responsible for issuing permits of offshore drilling, collecting revenue from those operations and enforcing safety regulations.

MMS is under fire for cozy relationships with industry and reports of sex, pornography viewing and drug use, as well as approving offshore drilling operations -- including BP PLC's exploration plan for the area where oil is now gushing into the Gulf -- by way of a "categorical exclusion," a streamlined environmental review intended to be applied only to routine projects.

Babbitt said Salazar's reorganization plan does not go far enough. "I think Salazar is basically rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic," he said.

Babbitt said the industry has "essentially been self-regulating" for years, across both Democratic and Republican administrations but that the more serious problems did not take hold until President George W. Bush took office. "The corruption that has crept into the agency is a relatively recent phenomenon coming out of the deregulatory ethic that crept up during the Bush administration," he said.

Enviro groups want change at top

A coalition of 101 environmental groups and scientists said today that Salazar has failed to reform that corruption and should be fired for it.

"Today we know that real reform at MMS never happened," the coalition wrote in a letter to President Obama asking him to demand Salazar's resignation. "MMS continued its reckless lack of oversight of the oil and gas industry, this time in the form of rubberstamping offshore oil and gas development."

The letter, whose signatories include national and regional wildlife groups and a handful of former Interior scientists, is also critical of Salazar's efforts on restoring scientific integrity, protecting endangered species and overseeing the coal industry.

Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff defended Salazar's efforts following the Gulf spill and his plan to restructure MMS.

"Secretary Salazar has ordered a fundamental restructuring of MMS that will be systemic and not cosmetic because he is well aware that we need to clean up the troubled agency and restore balance to the development of our nation's offshore energy resources," she said.

Along with the creation of a body within MMS dedicated exclusively to inspecting energy operations, Salazar is asking Congress to boost funding for the inspections.

The Interior chief is also asking Congress to triple its 30-day deadline for MMS to respond to exploration plans submitted by oil and gas companies, saying that a 90-day review period would provide time for additional environmental and safety reviews.

"The secretary is devoting 100 percent of his time to the fight to protect the Gulf Coast from BP's oil spill and will not rest until the leak is stopped, the affected communities are made whole and the Gulf Coast is restored," Barkoff added.

Click here to read the letter.

Reporter Josh Voorhees contributed.