By ERICA WERNER and MATTHEW DALY Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON (AP) – The head of the troubled agency that oversees offshore drilling resigned under pressure Thursday as President Barack Obama moved more aggressively to take charge of the Gulf oil spill.
The departure of Minerals Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum was announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a congressional hearing where Birnbaum had been scheduled to testify but didn’t show up.
Birnbaum resigned "on her own terms and her own volition," Salazar told lawmakers. “Elizabeth Birnbaum is a strong and effective person and leader. She helped break through tough issues including offshore renewable development and helped us take important steps to fix a broken system. She is a good public servant. She resigned today on her own terms and on her own volition. I thank her for her service and wish her the very best.”
Birnbaum released the following statement. “I’m grateful to the President and to the Secretary for allowing me to serve this Administration and the country. It’s been a great privilege to serve as Director of the MMS. I have enormous admiration for the men and women of the MMS who do a difficult job under challenging circumstances. I’m hopeful that the reforms that the Secretary and the Administration are undertaking will resolve the flaws in the current system that I inherited.”
The development came just hours before a White House press conference where Obama was set to announce strong new measures in response to the spill, including extending a moratorium on new deepwater oil drilling and canceling some planned lease sales entirely.
Birnbaum, who had led MMS since July 2009, was out after she and her agency came under withering criticism from lawmakers of both parties over lax oversight of drilling and cozy ties with industry. Salazar recently announced he was radically restructuring the agency into three separate parts.
It was a day of fast-moving developments in Washington and in the Gulf, where engineers were watching for signs of success from the latest attempt to stanch the leak five weeks into the catastrophe.