The wrong head rolled


I am a friend and colleague of Elizabeth ("Liz") Birnbaum, who recently managed the Minerals Management Service in the U.S. Department of the Interior. She left her position several weeks into the BP spill in the Gulf.

The reporting on her sometimes claims or implies that she lacks sufficient commitment to environmental protection or safety. For example, Ray Ring reported in "The Oil Spill's Upshot" that "Even though Obama's initial director of Minerals Management, S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, has quit under fire, a lot more could be done to make drilling safer" (HCN, 6/21/10).

I am not critical of HCN reporters -- they appear to be reporting what they heard. However, these and other reports may create the false impression that Liz is not committed to environmental protection and safety. I know from past work with Liz that she is enormously intelligent, highly capable, tough and a lifelong environmental advocate, having worked for both the National Wildlife Federation and American Rivers.

So what happened at MMS? I don't have all the details, but I do know that she was making strides to turn the agency around. While she was there, the royalty-in-kind program, the source of all kinds of problems, was eliminated. MMS also commissioned the first external review of MMS offshore safety inspections in 10 years. Having worked inside one of our colossal federal agencies, I'd also note that it takes more than nine months -- the time Liz was manager -- to turn around an agency with 1,700 employees and a history of deep problems. You can't just fire employees overnight who have civil service protection.

Bruce Driver
Crested Butte, Colorado

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