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Gulf oil spill: Interim chief named for troubled oversight agency

May 28, 2010 | 10:50 am

Abbey-Small The Interior Department on Friday named a new interim director to head its shattered Minerals Management Service. The announcement comes a day after the director resigned amid scandal and criticism over the worst oil spill in the nation's history.

Bob Abbey, currently director of the Bureau of Land Management, will take over an agency that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has split into three parts in an effort to cordon off the conflicting missions of promoting leasing of federal mineral rights, collecting royalties and overseeing safety and environmental issues.

The service has been rocked by a series of reports that highlighted its coziness with the oil industry, including employees accepting gifts, using drugs and having sexual liaisons with oil company officials.

The latest report investigated alleged impropriety at the service's Lake Charles, La., district office from 2000 to 2008, and was released as thousands of gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's damaged undersea well. Among its highlights were a memo from a supervisor explaining the prevailing culture of the office:

"Obviously, we're all oil industry. We're all from the same part of the country. Almost all of our inspectors have worked for oil companies out on these same platforms. They grew up in the same towns. Some of these people they've been friends with all their life. They've been with these people since they were kids. They've hunted together. They fish together. They skeet shoot together. ... They do this all the time."

It followed up on a 2008 report that detailed "a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" over a five-year period at the Denver-based office of the Minerals Management Service that dealt with "royalty in kind" payments. Salazar ended the program, which had allowed lease holders to pay their royalties in oil and gas delivered to the federal government.

Abbey will retain his title as head of the BLM, the agency that governs millions of acres of public land, including leases for oil and gas development. He will turn over daily duties to Mike Pool, former director of BLM's California office, according to a statement from the Interior Department. Abbey was confirmed as head of the BLM last August.

When he took office, Abbey promised a "balanced approach" and more public input into the leases for oil and gas development.

Abbey had already been dispatched to the Louisiana incident command center to help coordinate the Interior Department's response to the oil leak in the gulf.

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Bob Abbey. Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior