Ken Salazar getting tough with BP: Too little too late?

The naming of a former prosecutor to head the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service, coupled with President Barack Obama's lackluster but occasionally pugnacious speech about making British Petroleum "pay" for the oil-slick disaster in the Gulf, suggests the administration is finally starting to look at poor regulation of oil-and-gas drilling in a new light -- a criminal one.

Better late than never, perhaps. But better still if Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar had been focused on the dire implications of his department's regulatory dysfunctions eighteen months ago.

Salazar, you may recall, trotted out his "new sheriff in town" speech at the MMS office in Lakewood shortly after his appointment, vowing to clean up the agency responsible for regulating drilling offshore and on federal lands. But the changes he implemented -- a new ethics code, dumping the controversial "royalty-in-kind program" -- took months to achieve and proved to be more cosmetic than structural.

In other words, he did little to alter the basic coziness between MMS and the industry it's supposed to regulate. He certainly didn't toughen the inspection and review process for offshore rigs, which had degenerated considerably in the Bush years. In fact, he was still pushing for expanded offshore drilling just a few weeks before BP's rig blew up and sank.

Salazar's initial choice to head MMS, Elizabeth Birnbaum, resigned (or was scapegoated, depending on your point of view) in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon debacle. His new head, Michael Bromwich, is a former Justice Department Inspector General with a history of tough investigations going back to the Iran-Contra era. He has zero experience in oil and gas regulation but seems to be the kind of guy you bring in when you have a lot of serious internal probing to do.

Salazar has already announced plans to split MMS into three agencies , in an effort to sort out its conflicting missions; Bromwich will likely oversee its regulatory and enforcement functions. If some critical internal purging results, that could go a long way toward restoring shreds of credibility to a department reeling from the BP spill.

Now if only they could get the estimates of the amount of oil spewing into the ocean right, and some glimmer of a feasible plan to stop it.