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Watt irks critics again, shifts control of offshore minerals to new agency

US Interior Secretary James G. Watt continues to announce new policies for governing US resources that make his environmentalist critics unhappy.

The latest Watt initiative that has his opponents - as well as some of the secretary's employees - upset is the abolishment of the Conservation Service of the US Geological Survey (USGS) and its replacement by a new unit called the Minerals Management Service.

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Environmentalists, particularly in the West, say they are upset because they feel the Conservation Service was responsive to their concerns in assessing and managing offshore mineral resources, conducting environmental impact studies regarding such matters as drilling on the outer continental shelf (OCS), and the sale of offshore oil and gas leases.

They also charge that the reorganization circumvents the kind of ''multiple-use management'' required by federal law and permits decisions on OCS minerals development to be made without balancing various values and uses. Interior Department spokesmen maintain that the requirements of the law must be observed by whatever agency handles OCS matters.

However, the new division will not have the apparent independence enjoyed by its predecessor. In a May 10 order, Secretary Watt established a Minerals Management Board in his office to supervise the Minerals Management Service (MMS). Deputy Interior Secretary Don Hodel will chair the new board, which will also include the assistant secretaries for energy and minerals; land and water resources; Indian affairs; and policy, budget, and administration.

Watt's environmentalist critics say this will make it easier for the secretary to carry forward his intent to greatly expand minerals leasing and development - particularly offshore oil drilling.

Watt, on the other hand, said in a May 10 letter to Interior employees that the reorganization ''continues our efforts to build a more accountable and efficient management of mineral royalties from oil and gas and mineral leasing functions under the direction of the Minerals Management Service.''

The MMS was established Jan. 19, 1982, to handle royalties from oil and gas leases to private companies - a job generally thought to have been poorly done in the past at a cost, according to Watt, of ''hundreds of millions of dollars per year.''

Watt's May 10 order greatly expands the scope of the MMS. In effect, it transfers several hundred (some put the figure at 700) USGS and Bureau of Land Management employees to the new agency. Geological Survey employees in the Conservation Service anxiously await word on possible transfers. It appears that - for the near future - they will continue to work where they are, though for a new bureaucracy.

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Among the ''streamlined management and cost-efficiencies which would result'' from placing reponsibility for OCS activities in a new bureacracy, Watt cited better accountability, cost savings through reduction of duplicated effort and overlapping functions, the ability to provide ''a more efficient leasing program'' and to ''more effectively balance protection of the marine and coastal environments with developmental and security needs of the nation.''

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