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Senate Bill Would Hold MMS Feet to the Fire

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and John Barrasso (R-WY) last Thursday introduced bipartisan legislation (S. 3556) that seeks to increase the oversight and accountability of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) following the disclosure earlier this month of illegal and unseemly behavior of former employees at the agency.

"The federal organization charged with collecting billion of dollars of royalties from oil and gas leases on public lands cannot be allowed to carry on like some corrupt, third-world bureaucracy from a bad Hollywood movie," Wyden said. "This legislation will hold MMS, and the royalty-in-kind [RIK] program it administers, to a new and professional level of accountability."

The recent investigation by the Interior Office of Inspector General (OIG) "raises serious questions of public trust and illustrates a total disregard for personal, professional and programmatic ethics," said Barrasso, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee of Public Lands and Forests.

The legislation comes on the heels of three OIG reports that revealed an underbelly of the MMS that few apparently knew about -- one that involves illegal drug use, sex with oil industry contacts and between former employees involved in the agency's RIK program, as well as rigging of contracts and other financial misconduct at high levels (see NGI, Sept. 15).

The Wyden-Barrasso bill, which has five components, would:

Wyden and Barrasso said they introduced their measure both as an amendment to energy legislation currently pending before the Senate and as a stand-alone bill. They noted that they expect to work with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the House Natural Resources Committee to advance their proposed reforms in the next Congress.

Speaking from the Senate floor last Thursday, Bingaman said a comprehensive energy bill would be a priority in the next Congress, and it would include provisions calling for a "thorough examination" of the MMS.

The MMS oversees all oil and natural gas leasing on the Outer Continental Shelf and collects an average of $10 billion a year in mineral royalties from all federal lands.

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