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BIRNBAUM WAS A SYMPTOM: THE PROBLEMS REMAIN

Updated on May 28, 2010

Salazar covers his butt........maybe

Liz Birnbaum announced her resignation as director of the Minerals Management Service on Thursday, May 27. She was clearly a problem: MMS approved the BP Deepwater Horizon receiving a categorical exemption (April 6, 2009) under the terms of which BP proceeded to install and operate an unsafe oil drilling apparatus in the deepest ever oil exploiration in the world. Birnbaum did nothing, absolutely nothing to correct MMS' long standing practice of exempting oil exploration projects from safety and environmental standards. However, Ken Salazar, her boss, seems to have been unaware of this until it wad too late, until after the BP rig blew out.

For as long as it has had oversight responsibility and permitting authority for such diverse interests as oil and gas exploration, Indian affairs, timber and mineral interests and the nation's national parks the United States Department of the Interior has been an irretrievably conflicted and corrupt agency. Not much has changed from one administration to the next. Americans cherish tradition, after all. President Obama and his hand picked Secretary of the Interior, a former colleague in the United States Senate Kenneth Lee Salazar has apparently done nothing to diminish Interior's tradition of ineptitude and corruption. I offer the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the millions of barrels of crude oil afflicting the Gulf of Mexico and its shores as proof; irrefutable proof. All of the final permits and regulatory exemptions that made it possible for the defective Deepwater Horizon rig to be put into operation stand as proof of this fact.

I personally witnessed Salazar say at a recent news conference, speaking about the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that his agency allowed to happen, that he "....thought everything was in its proper place......" This suggests, of course, that he was somehow personally involved in the supervision or review of the process by which BP was granted exemptions from safety and environmental standards, or that he had at least reviewed what decisions were made and how and determined that all was well. We should ask Slick if he even knew what categorical exemptions are and if so did he ever question why they are granted or if they should be available to oil exploration companies at all. But, everything was in its proper place.

Think again Mr. Secretary. Liz Birnbaum may have been a problem, but you hired her to be the director of MMS and you never found anything wrong with her until the BP Deepwater Horizon rig blew out and blew up, proving how inept your Department of the Interior remains. She was in over her head and you threw her an anchor, not a life jacket.

In the late summer of 2008 the Interior Department's Inspector General launched what was supposed to be a six month long investigation into the handling of the Cape Wind project review by MMS. I know this because I was the first person to contact the Department and ask for an I.G. investigation. In fact, I am so identified on page two of the eventual report, which was issued eighteen months after the investigation began. This report cites instance after instance of things done improperly or not at all by MMS, but concludes that the review was proper. Liz Birnbaum was the director of MMS when this report was issued. Kenneth Lee Salazar was her superior. So far, Cape Wind seems to have a lot in common with Deepwater Horizon...very curious decisions at the highest levels of government.

Regulations were ignored, rules were hastily developed - specifically designed to see the project receive final approval, science contained in reports from 'cooperating agencies', including other federal agencies, was either changed by MMS or ignored, the career of at least one veteran federal employee was destroyed when he would not cave in to bad science and the demands of Massachusetts Audubon, the full economic analysis of the project by MMS was never published, the Coast Guard was pressured to deny that the project would cause radar problems in Nantucket Sound, and on and on. The difference between Cape Wind and BP's Deepwater Horizon rig is that one is this country's first offshore wind farm project and the other is the deepest oil exploration project in history, but both represent precedent setting decisions by MMS. Aside from this difference not much else varies from the usual MMS pattern of ignoring federal law and its own regulations.

In spite of the fact that MMS has been a troubled agency for years and in spite of Slick Salazar's puffery when he proclaimed after his swearing in that as Interior Secretary he would hold the department accountable for doing its job properly, nothing has changed. The proof is washing up on Gulf Coast beaches. Salazar has shown himself to be utterly incompetent as an administrator, an enforcer, an agent of change. He is also a coward, telling Interior Department staff that he plans to divide MMS into two or three new entities and indicating that Liz Birnbaum's role in the new regime was unclear. This was undoubtedly his way of ducking the hard issue, of not telling Birnbaum in an open forthright manner that she was no longer welcome at Interior. Salazar is displaying an unflattering lack of grace and leadership ability.

Unwilling to make hard decisions Slick Salazar has found a way to leave such matters to his underlings. His method is Machiavellian management at its best: blame others for the failures of overall department authority; squeeze people into quitting as a way of firing them, avoid fixing anything by dividing the cancerous growth into two or three separate tumors. There is a simple question to be asked and answered: if Ken Salazar could not effectively manage the existing agency he was selected to oversee, if he was unable to bring about meaningful change in time to have prevented the Deepwater Horizon disaster, why should we assume that he can do so now or in the future?

President Obama trusted Ken Salzar and now we have tens of millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf. Salazar trusted Liz Birnbaum but now she is gone. There is no barrier between the President and his Secretary of Interior now, no buffer. Nor is there any protection against charges of incompetence for Salazar himself. With Birnbaum departed the whole problem becomes his. Two months ago I posted a hub in which I asked if Ken Salazar might come to be known as Secretary of the Inferior. Well.....? How I wish I had been wrong.

One final an outrageous example of Salazar's incompetence: earlier this week he said that if BP could not stop the leak at Deepwater Horizon, the U.S. government would push them out of way, properly and take care of the situation itself. Does this mean that Salazar had technology and equipment available superior to what BP had or has and that he had withheld these resources in spite of the immediate need to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf? What exactly did Salazar mean? Does he know what he meant? Has he any clue how to stop the disaster his incompetence has caused?


Copyright 2010 By Peter A. Kenney

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