In the intense glare of the Gulf Coast oil spill, a key Obama administration official, Minerals Management Service head Elizabeth Birnbaum, has stepped down. Critics, including environmentalists and officials in President Obama’s own administration, say the ouster had more to do with political optics than Birnbaum’s performance as a top bureaucrat for the Interior Department.
“This is a scapegoat firing,” said Erich Pica, president of environmental activist group Friends of the Earth. “Ms. Birnbaum inherited an agency crippled by a culture of collusion with the oil industry that permeated at all levels.”
“You’re assuming she was fired. … I don’t know. I’m telling you — I found out about it this morning,” President Obama said at a White House press conference on the oil spill on Thursday. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar said in congressional testimony that Birnbaum resigned “on her own volition.”
Still, media reports, citing unnamed sources, said Birnbaum had been pushed out.
Some praised Birnbaum – who spent more a decade working for environmental groups in Washington, D.C. – for her commitment to the environment.
“I’ve known Liz for a long time — she’s high-integrity, honest and very interested in protecting the environment,” a key official at the Environmental Protection Agency told The Daily Caller.
Some environmentalists said Birnbaum went into MMS, an agency beset with corruption and coziness with the oil industry, to clean it up — but may not have been supported in her efforts.
“She went to the agency with the best of intentions to clean the place up. But even for a very smart and talented person and committed person, the floors were apparently to deep to really sweep clean. Who really knows if her efforts were really supported as they should have been from above before the spill happened?” a source with the activist group Environment America said.
On the other hand, a hard-hitting New York Times article said Tuesday that MMS insiders were unhappy with how little progress Birnbaum had made in reforming the agency.
Birnbaum worked for American Rivers, an environmentalist group that advocates for reduced water pollution, from 2001 to 2007. She worked for the conservation group National Wildlife Federation from 1987 to 1991. Neither organization returned calls for comment.
She took her post as head of MMS less than a year ago, on July 15, 2009.
MMS has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Gulf Coast oil spill because of multiple reports from its inspector’s general office saying its regulators were too cozy with oil companies.