The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

May 27, 2010
President Obama finally gets tough on oil spill

After being pummeled day after day for his administration's response -- or lack thereof -- to the Gulf oil gusher, President Barack Obama is trying to reassert control today.

He showed the door to Elizabeth Birnbaum, chief of the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that both collects royalties from oil leases and is supposed to regulate the oil industry.

He announced that he is extending by six months the moratorium on new offshore oil drilling that started after the April 20 explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig.

And he held a rare lengthy news conference to defend and explain his response to the growing disaster. At the close of the press conference, Obama said he accepted the ultimate responsibility for the spill and the cleanup, and even claimed that it is his last thought before going to sleep and his first when he wakes up. He'll face some of his critics up close and personal in a visit to Louisiana on Friday.

The Bee's editorial board has been one of the voices critical of the president's handling of the crisis. His response today is a step in the right direction.

The Obama team is already moving to separate the two functions of MMS, so that one office focuses on regulation while the other issues the leases. And that was before the Interior Department's inspector general reported this week about the cushy, conflict-ridden relationships between some MMS employees and oil industry officials.

For some in Congress, including Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from San Diego County, the leadership change at MMS is overdue, but only a first step.

"This is an agency that has been over-run by corruption and incompetence spanning multiple administrations and multiple personnel," he said in a statement. "While leadership changes are necessary and a good first step, there are much larger issues that cannot be addressed by just re-shuffling the deck. In the past ten years, there have been 20 reports by the GAO, inspectors general and the Congress that have all gone ignored. It wasn't until we were immersed in an unprecedented catastrophe that anyone in government decided to take action.

"As has been exhaustively documented, the problems at MMS aren't just limited to them but also extend to their relationship with the Department of Interior. We are seeing the result of a broken bureaucracy with a dysfunctional culture that is in desperate need of substantial and immediate reform."

UPDATE: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, welcomed Obama's moves today. But she also expressed dismay that the administration had issued environmental waivers for Gulf drilling projects despite the moratorium.

"I will be watching closely for further details and to make sure the Administration holds up its end of the bargain," she said in a statement. "For the past 38 days, the nation has watched in frustration as more than 19 million gallons or more of crude oil have spewed out of a leaking wellhead a mile below the ocean surface, the largest spill in American history."

As chairwoman of the Senate Interior appropriations subcommittee, on June 16 Feinstein plans a hearing on the proposed reorganization of MMS. "It's clear to me that the Administration needs to completely overhaul all operational, environmental and safety policies and procedures for offshore drilling -- particularly in ultra-deep waters, where it is virtually impossible to respond to emergencies and equipment failures," she added.

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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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