City of Brass

The official estimates of the Gulf oil spill have been revised upwards to 4x greater than previously stated, making this disaster far larger than the Exxon Valdez. It was partly pressure from liberals that forced BP to permit independent scientists to make these better estimates, instead of trusting the lowballed numbers that BP execs tried to sell.

President Obama has been coming in for a fair amount of critique for not having done enough. To some extent, that’s unfair, as far as technology response goes – it’s BP that has equipment and the expertise. BP executives have indeed been lying and obstructing like crazy, and BP will need to be held to account for that, but the people in the field are professionals who really want to solve this problem.

It’s tempting to scream, “send in the Marines!” and demand that Obama row out to the spill site and single-handedly swim down to seal the well personally like Aquaman. But the problem here is a culture of deregulation and lack of accouuntability endemic to the oil industry and the government agencies – especially MMS, the Minerals Management Service – who are tasked with oversight. So the best thing that Obama can do – and has been doing – is to take political and legal steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

And along those lines, we just heard that the director of MMS, Elizabeth Birnbaum, has been fired. And, all off-shore new drilling contracts have been suspended for at least a year – affecting all the oil companies, not just BP.

I do feel bad for Birnbaum. The contrast with “Heckuva job, Brownie” couldn’t be clearer. I don’t know if she was incompetent or corrupt, but either way this was her job and she failed. If there are no penalties for failure, then there will be more failures, and we can’t afford that. Accountability is key to changing the environment and attitudes that directly led to this ongoing tragedy.

UPDATE: video feed from Obama’s live press conference:

live-blogged at Daily Kos – Obama handles direct questions about how much he has been doing, how in control the federal government has been, and what further steps will be taken to reform MMS. This pretty much ends any concern on my part.

Here’s Birnbaum’s bio from the Director page at the MMS, sure to be erased soon. LizBirnbaumHR.jpg

S. Elizabeth (Liz) Birnbaum assumed duties as Director of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) on July 15, 2009.

As MMS Director, Birnbaum administers programs that ensure the effective management of renewable energy, such as wind, wave, and ocean current energy; and traditional energy and mineral resources on the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf, including the environmentally safe exploration, development, and production of oil and natural gas, as well as the collection and distribution of revenues for minerals developed on federal and American Indian lands.

Before her appointment, she was staff director for the Committee on House Administration, where she oversaw strategy development, budget management and staff activities for the committee that manages legislative branch agencies. From 2001-2007, she was Vice President for Government Affairs and General Counsel for American Rivers, where she directed advocacy programs for the nation’s leading river conservation organization.

At the Department of the Interior, Birnbaum was Associate Solicitor for Mineral Resources from 2000 to 2001, supervising and managing a staff of attorneys that provided legal advice, developed regulations and conducted litigation on minerals issues for the Minerals Management Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation.

In addition, she was a special assistant to the Interior Solicitor, from 1999 to 2000, overseeing legal policy on a range of natural resource issues, including mining law, public land management and hydropower licensing. From 1991 to 1999 she was counsel to the House Committee on Natural Resources, where she handled legislative and oversight activities for the Department of the Interior, U.S. Forest Service, and electric power marketing administrations. From 1987 to 1991 she was counsel for the Water Resources Program of the National Wildlife Federation.

Birnbaum has been an officer and member of numerous boards and commissions, including the National Capital Section of the American Water Resources Association; Arlington County Environment and Energy Conservation Commission; and the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Section of the District of Columbia Bar.

Birnbaum received her Juris Doctor from Harvard University in 1984 and her A.B. degree, magna cum laude, from Brown University in 1979. She was Editor in Chief of the Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 8.

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