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MMS chief Elizabeth Birnbaum ousted, officials say

By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 3:40 PM

Under intense pressure to show that President Obama is taking action on the oil spill crisis, White House officials Thursday made clear that the top oil regulator at the Department of Interior had been forced out.

Elizabeth Birnbaum, the director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service, was given the opportunity to work elsewhere in the government but resigned instead, officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, in order to talk candidly about a personnel change, moments after Birnbaum's boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, praised her as "a strong and effective person and leader" and said she "resigned today on her own terms and on her own volition."

In a joint statement with Salazar, Birnbaum said she was "hopeful that the reforms that the Secretary and the Administration are undertaking will resolve the flaws in the current system that I inherited."

The conflicting messages came as the crisis consumed attention in Washington, where Obama held his first news conference since the spill began, and in the gulf, where the company and the government continued frantic attempts to cut off the flow of oil.

The Minerals Management Service has been faulted for lax oversight in the wake of the mammoth spill. Some lawmakers said Birnbaum's ouster, while welcomed, did not go far enough.

"As has been exhaustively documented, the problems at MMS aren't just limited to them but also extend to their relationship with the Department of Interior," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "We are seeing the result of a broken bureaucracy with a dysfunctional culture that is in desperate need of substantial and immediate reform."

Birnbaum, who took the helm of MMS on July 15, had spent most her Washington career as an environmental advocate, working either for the government or nonprofit groups.

Prior to leading MMS she had served as staff director for the House Administration Committee. But from 2001 to 2007 she served as vice president for government affairs and general counsel for the advocacy group American Rivers.

She was also no novice to Interior, having worked there from 1999 to 2001, during the Clinton administration. In her last year on the job there, she worked as the department's associate solicitor for mineral resources, helping develop rules and litigating on behalf of MMS.

But several sources said Birnbaum had not managed to fully control an agency that has been beset with changes of corruption and cronyism for years. And they urged a more thorough house cleaning be conducted.

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, noted that Salazar appointed a former BP executive, Sylvia Baca, as deputy assistant secretary for lands and minerals management nearly a year ago. In that post, Baca helps oversee MMS.

And Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund, said the reforms did not substitute for a broader change to the nation's energy policy.

"What is still missing is a solution to the underlying cause of the BP disaster -- our addiction to dirty, dangerous oil," Roberts said in a statement. "There has never been more urgent to break oil's stranglehold on our economy and our environment. The catastrophe in the gulf should provide all the impetus needed for the President and Congress to finally pass a comprehensive climate and clean energy bill this year."

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