Heads Roll as the Oil Slick Spreads: Elizabeth Birnbaum Resigns at MMS

Elizabeth Birnbaum resigned as head of the Minerals Management Service Thursday morning Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

On the same day that engineers are completing the top-kill procedure to stem the flow of oil from the Gulf of Mexico seabed, Washington is executing a top-kill procedure of its own at the Minerals Management Service. Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the agency that oversees drilling for oil and natural gas, was asked to resign from her post this morning by the Obama administration. She had held the job since 2009 and had overseen the agency during the Deepwater Horizon's drilling ventures.

"Elizabeth Birnbaum is a strong and effective person and leader," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "She helped break through tough issues including offshore renewable development and helped us take important steps to fix a broken system. She is a good public servant. She resigned today on her own terms and on her own volition. I thank her for her service and wish her the very best."

On Tuesday, a New York Times profile of Birnbaum questioned whether she "is up to the task of remaking the Minerals Management Service, an agency widely recognized as one of the most dysfunctional in government." While her colleagues called her tough and smart, the story said:

Agency scientists and other employees complained that since taking the post in July, Ms. Birnbaum has done almost nothing to fix problems that have plagued the minerals agency for over a decade. She rarely visited the agency's far-flung offices, so few staff members have ever seen her. The same agency managers who during the Bush administration ignored or suppressed scientists' concerns about the safety and environmental risks of some off-shore drilling plans are still there doing the same things, they said.

Salazar was forced to acknowledge the lapses in regulatory oversight by MMS that led to the Deepwater Horizon incident in the gulf. The drilling proposal, as well as the disaster-response plan, contained components that should have been addressed before the rig was allowed to drill more than three miles below sea level, a congressional review revealed this week. The blowout preventer, the five-story-tall piece of equipment used to prevent explosive quantities of gas or oil from surging upward toward the rig, was operating in a state of disrepair and had not undergone inspections, nor had rig operators heeded safety warnings.

Salazar had taken an interest in breaking up MMS a week after taking office in January 2009, after an internal department investigation showing that agency officials had engaged in questionable behavior involving drugs and pornography at a satellite office in Louisiana. At that time, Salazar traveled to Lakewood, Colo., to detail plans to tighten ethics standards for the entire Interior Department. But it wasn't until the explosion in the gulf, and the evidence of lax regulation that followed, that Salazar proposed breaking up the agency. The same people who collect revenues for oil leases, he said, shouldn't be the same people charged with regulating the actual drilling.

Such an admission alluded to an institutional breakdown of domestic drilling oversight leading up to the spill. But D.C. is a city where accountability matters, and structural changes don't go nearly as far as a body count. Don't be surprised if Birnbaum is the first of many taken down in the spill's murky wake.

With Chelsea Jack