WASHINGTON — The chief of the Interior Department's land management bureau has stepped in to run the much-criticized agency that oversees offshore oil drilling after its director resigned under pressure.
Bob Abbey took over Friday as acting director of the Minerals Management Service and will also keep his post at the Bureau of Land Management. He replaces Elizabeth Birnbaum, who left Thursday after 10 months as director of the agency that oversees drilling on federal land and water. It has been buffeted by criticism from lawmakers and others since the massive oil spill began last month in the Gulf of Mexico.
In naming Abbey to the post, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Abbey has the experience necessary to reform the drilling agency and "help tackle this crisis in the Gulf."
Birnbaum, a former environmental lawyer, had been blamed for failing to move quickly to reverse a culture in which MMS regulators grew too close to the oil and natural gas industry. Some agency inspectors have accepted trips, gifts and other favors from the industry, and even negotiated jobs while on the federal payroll, the Interior Department's acting inspector general said in a scathing report this week.
Last week, Salazar proposed abolishing the minerals agency, replacing it with three separate entities. Salazar said the agency's three main functions – energy development, enforcement and revenue collection – should be split up to avoid what he called "real or perceived" conflicts of interests.
Abbey, 58, of Nevada, has worked for more than 32 years at state and federal land agencies, including eight years as head of the BLM's Nevada office.
Abbey will turn over daily management duties at the land bureau, which oversees 253 million acres of public lands mostly in the West, to deputy director Mike Poole.
As MMS director, he will be in charge of a 1,700-employee agency that oversees drilling on federal lands and in federal water and collects an average of $13 billion a year in royalties.
Abbey previously was a partner in the private consulting firm Abbey, Stubbs, & Ford, LLC with offices in Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.