Head Of Offshore Drilling Agency Steps Down

The head of the Minerals Management Service stepped down today. Little-known Obama appointee Liz Birnbaum took over the troubled agency in July, and in the wake of the Gulf oil disaster, she has come under fire for failing to change a culture of coziness between the MMS and the oil and gas industries.

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President Obama also acknowledged that his administration should've done more to stop the cozy relationship between regulators and the oil industry. NPR's Peter Overby reports now on the resignation today of the country's chief regulator of offshore drilling.

PETER OVERBY: President Obama told reporters that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hadn't filled him in after Liz Birnbaum resigned as director of the Minerals Management Service.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't know. I'm telling you the - I found out about it this morning. So I don't yet know the circumstances, and Ken Salazar has been in testimony on the Hill.

OVERBY: In fact, Salazar was in closer touch today with some members of the House Appropriations Committee. He was there for a hearing this morning, and he said Birnbaum resigned.

Secretary KEN SALAZAR (Department of the Interior): She did it on her own terms and her own volition. But I will say this about Liz Birnbaum, she is a strong and very effective person.

OVERBY: And Salazar credited her with helping to nail down approval for a long-debated wind farm in Nantucket Sound.

Birnbaum was in office just 10 months. She previously worked in the Clinton administration's Interior department, two House committees and two environmental advocacy groups.

Since the blowout, she hasn't been at the forefront of the administration's crisis management team, nor has she been prominent as the administration grapples with fresh evidence of complacency and past corruption in her agency.

She did testify at a House committee hearing yesterday when she said she had met with Salazar's staffers who are planning the announced breakup of MMS into three new agencies.

Texas Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert expressed surprise that she wasn't the one in charge of the reorganization.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Representative LOUIE GOHMERT (Republican, Texas): You just got to make your suggestions to the three representatives.

Ms. ELIZABETH BIRNBAUM (Director, Minerals Management Service): I actually think it's important that I not be one of the people who is devising the reorganization of MMS because I think it needs to be done by fresh eyes.

OVERBY: And now it will be. Birnbaum's resignation was effective today.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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