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White House, Interior pledge to review Minerals Management Service procedures

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration said Friday it is tightening procedures at the agency that grants offshore drilling permits to ensure it follows all environmental laws.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the review will focus on whether the Minerals Management Service is following the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws before issuing permits for offshore oil and gas development. His directive comes after the catastrophic Gulf oil spill.

Salazar and Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, announced the review minutes after President Barack Obama pledged to end a "cozy relationship" between the oil industry and federal regulators that he said had existed for years and into his own administration.

Obama said that oil drilling permits had been granted without appropriate environmental reviews.

"That cannot and will not happen anymore," Obama said.

An environmental advocacy group said Friday that drilling plans received approval from the Obama administration without the permits required under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The approvals included the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded last month, killing 11 people and leading to the spill of millions of gallons of oil, according to a notice of intent to sue filed by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. The group said it is suing Salazar for ignoring the laws when granting the permits. The group said Interior has approved three lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys and more than 300 drilling operations without the required permits.

"Under Salazar's watch, the Department of the Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice area where laws are ignored and wildlife protection takes a backseat to oil-company profits," said Miyoko Sakashita, the center's oceans director.

MMS is required to get permits under the two environmental laws for drilling that might harm endangered species or marine mammals. A spokeswoman for Salazar said late Friday the review will also look at how offshore oil and gas operations are conducted under the two laws.

Salazar, who has previously announced plans to split the minerals agency into two parts, said the administration remains focused on providing every resource it can to respond to the oil leak, while also investigating what happened and what can be done to prevent a future accident.

The review announced Friday will focus on the National Environmental Policy Act, a keystone of environmental law that requires federal agencies to consider a range of environmental effects a planned project could have before granting approval. The law also requires a lengthy public comment period before an agency decides whether to approve a project.

Meanwhile, the chairman of a congressional committee looking into the spill has asked a White House official for information on why BP's drilling operation at Deepwater Horizon received a "categorical exclusion," which allows for expedited oil and gas drilling without the required detailed environmental review.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., asked Sutley in a letter Friday for all documents that justified the decision.

Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that the government's oversight of offshore drilling "was as bad as I thought it was in my career as a senator. And it really is. This is a real tragedy."

Biden told Pittsburgh radio station KDKA he thought lax federal oversight of permits was a problem throughout his six-term Senate career.

He said he opposed offshore drilling as a senator during the Bush administration "because they just sort of threw away the key," adding that Obama's plan for drilling was conditioned on there being "real serious oversight."

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said Friday he has begun an investigation into potential lapses in oversight by the MMS in the years leading up to the Gulf explosion. He said the comnmittee will focus on agency's management and effectiveness, "revolving door" issues in which senior MMS officials take jobs in the industry, and the apparent lack of oversight of offshore oil rigs.

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