Head of Minerals Management Service Fired: Who Was Liz Birnbaum?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

S. Elizabeth (Liz) Birnbaum, director of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) since July 14, 2009, became the first leading official in the Obama administration to lose her job over the federal government’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But whether Birnbaum deserved to be fired, or merely became the scapegoat, is a matter of debate.

Two days before her boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, asked her to resign, Birnbaum was the subject of an unflattering story in The New York Times. The article portrayed the veteran of Washington, DC, as keeping too low a profile while the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfolded. It also reported that MMS experts complained she had done little to reform the agency that had a long reputation for buddying up to industry.
Friends of Birnbaum countered that she was never instructed by Salazar to clean house. Instead, she spent much of her nine months on the job promoting renewable energy, particularly the contested issue of putting a wind farm off Cape Cod.
“She still doesn’t get it,” an acquaintance of Birnbaum told Greenwire. “She still doesn’t understand she’s being made the poster child for all this. She thinks [her firing is] on the merits.”
From the reaction President Barack Obama gave to reporters when questioned about Birnbaum’s dismissal, it did not appear the termination was ordered from the White House. The president added that Salazar’s job was safe.
Birbaum was born in 1958 in Virginia. She began her higher education at Brown University, graduated in 1979, and received her associate bachelor’s degree in linguistics, magna cum laude. She went on to earn her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1984, after which she took on various positions that built a resume of two decades of energy and environmental policy experience.
From 1987 to 1991 Birnbaum was counsel for the Water Resources Program of the National Wildlife Federation. From 1991 to 1999, she was counsel to the House Committee on Natural Resources, after which she served as the special assistant to the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor, which oversees legal policy on natural resource issues. Birnbaum moved up to Associate Solicitor for Mineral Resources from 2000 to 2001, supervising and managing a staff of attorneys that worked to provide legal counsel, develop regulations and conduct litigation on minerals management for the Minerals Management Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation.
When George W. Bush took over the White House, Birnbaum left government and, from 2001 to 2007 she was the Vice President for Government Affairs and General Counsel for the non-profit conservation organization American Rivers. Birnbaum returned to government in 2007 as 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.
-Jacquelyn Lickness, Noel Brinkerhoff
Crisis Places Focus on Beleaguered Agency’s Chief (by Gardiner Harris, New York Times)
Liz Birnbaum (AllGov)


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