Chief drill regulator Birnbaum sacked, as feds increase estimate of spill

McClatchy NewspapersMay 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The director of the Minerals Management Service, Elizabeth Birnbaum, has been fired in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, a government official told McClatchy Newspapers today.

In another major development, the government said a new estimate of the size of the oil gusher is more than twice the original estimate and possibly much more.

The government's newest estimate means between 18 million and 36 million gallons of crude oil have spewed into the Gulf since mid-April.

Birnbaum's former agency, which manages offshore drilling for oil and gas on the outer continental shelf and collects revenue from drilling leases offshore and on federal land, has been roundly criticized for some time.

Among the allegations against it are its employees are too cozy with the industry they regulate and for lapses in oversight of deepwater drilling operations like BP's ill-fated rig.

Reaction to the firing was swift and not all positive.

"The departure of Elizabeth Birnbaum from MMS does not address the root problem," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-WV. "She has only been the public face of MMS for 11 months and the most serious allegations occurred prior to her tenure. This might on the surface be a good start but must not be the end game."

In making its spill estimate, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, who leads a team of experts assessing the flow of oil, said between 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day were gushing from the broken pipes at the sea bottom. BP and the government's first estimate had been 5,000 barrels a day, but that was based only on oil on the surface, and scientists can now see that much of the oil hasn't floated to the top.

McNutt said another team using different methods found the range could be up to 25,000 barrels. She said the numbers were all preliminary and "highly dynamic." The scientists and engineers on the team are getting new data and "will continue to refine and update the estimate," she said.

Meanwhile, BP is continuing to attempt to stop the leak by plugging the drill pipe with a special lubricated "mud" and concrete. Officials said they would know if the effort was successful later this afternoon.

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