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Ken Salazar's role in BP disaster: More spin than reform?

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The finger-pointing over the massive oil slick threatening the Gulf Coast is spreading almost as fast as the spill itself.

While critics on the right chortle over Department of the Interior chief of staff Tom Strickland's ill-timed trip to the Grand Canyon in the midst of the developing crisis, the White House and DOI have been firing off relentless press releases detailing the administration's minute-by-minute efforts to contain the spill and prepare for the worst, while heaping blame on British Petroleum -- which is firing back with its own inspiring updates about the company's heroic efforts to fix the mess.

The folks over at grist.org are dubbing the political maneuvering over the spill Spinapalooza 2010. And nobody is spinning harder at the moment than Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Whether his agency's pull-out-all-stops-and-lower-the-booms response to the spill ultimately averts an environmental catastrophe or proves stunningly ineffective, Salazar is receiving a degree of scrutiny now that he largely avoided in his first year on the job. And uncomfortable questions are emerging about the degree to which the reform-minded former Colorado senator may have been more focused on rhetoric rather than action in his approach to environmental safety in offshore drilling operations, before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon made the issue too pressing to ignore.

One of Salazar's first acts as Secretary was to visit the Lakewood office of the Minerals Management Service and declare that there was a new sheriff in town. His "top priority," he told Congress, would be to restore integrity to Interior and especially MMS, the scandal-plagued watchdog that had become entirely too cozy with energy companies during the Bush era.

Unfortunately, the promised overhaul didn't come quickly enough to make any real difference in offshore drilling procedures. Under Bush, MMS officials had concluded that any possible spill at BP's Gulf operations would have minimal environmental impact. And, as this Washington Post story details, under Salazar the MMS continued to grant hundreds of "categorical exclusions" that allowed oil companies to drill offshore without detailed environmental impact analyses -- and yes, BP's Deepwater Horizon lease received just such an exemption last year.

Given that DOI in the Bush years was heavily criticized for basically rubber-stamping one industry request after another to drill wherever the hell they wanted, it's alarming to see the tough-talking sheriff doing the same thing. Doubtless, major overhauls of offshore drilling regs are now in the works -- and will be roundly protested as a knee-jerk reaction to a spill that remains at this point largely unexplained. For a preview, check out these comments by former FEMA director Michael Brown.

But even major reform at this point won't erase the impression that what was supposed to be a "pro-active" administration has been placed in the familiar position of reacting to a crisis after the genie -- and the sludge -- is already out of the bottle.

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