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Commentary: Creation of new watchdog for offshore regulation is long overdue

Part of the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is good news for honest, no-conflict regulation of U.S. offshore drilling. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar wants to split the regulating and revenue-collecting functions of Minerals Management Service, with a new agency taking over regulatory oversight. Somewhere up there, Wally Hickel is smiling. And maybe shaking his head.

Salazar's proposal means that the regulators won't be watching the revenue stream and getting its priorities confused. His proposal means that the regulators will focus on safety, best practices and best available technology to minimize blowouts and spills.

Most important of all, he said clearly that while the oil industry certainly will be involved in writing the rules, it won't be in the driver's seat. The regulators will be. Simply put, the rules and adherence to them will have to satisfy the nation, not just the industry. That's the way it's supposed to be.

That's not the way it has been. The MMS has been understaffed and hurt by scandal in recent years, with an Interior inspector general calling the agency an ethical wasteland and critics saying it relied on industry assurances that its practices were safe.

The industry has to be there -- after all, it knows the most about the business. But it is not sovereign. And there's an inherent, obvious conflict in letting any industry write its own rules for safety and environmental protection when those operations cut into profits.

The late Wally Hickel served as governor of Alaska and secretary of the Interior. He was a champion of oil exploration and production on Alaska's North Slope and of producing Alaska's natural gas. He counted industry executives among his friends. But he never hesitated to assert state sovereignty when he thought the industry was crossing the line.

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