Announcing that he will resign in late March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar won praise from environmental advocates and fellow Democrats for his actions over the past four years, but few tears were shed by Republicans and the oil and gas industry over his departure.
Salazar, who became President Obama's first interior secretary in January 2009, announced Jan. 16 his intention to resign and return to his ranch in his home state of Colorado, where he was a former U.S. senator and state attorney general.
Salazar's resignation announcement follows Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson's decision to leave in early February. The third top-level member of Obama's energy and climate team, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is not expected to stay for Obama's second term, but he has not yet announced his plans.
Salazar's tenure is noted for a significant expansion of renewable energy projects on federal lands; a six-month drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico following the April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout/spill; a major internal reorganization to improve royalty collections and accountability; the conclusion of a longstanding claims dispute by native American tribes called the Cobell settlement; and for lively partisan battles on Capitol Hill over access to federal lands for energy development.
“Colorado is and will always be my home. I look forward to returning to my family and Colorado after eight years in Washington, D.C.,” he said, referring to his four years as interior secretary and previous four years as a senator.
Salazar ushered in “a new era of conservation for our nation's land, water, and wildlife,” Obama said, adding that Salazar played “an integral role in my administration's successful efforts to expand responsible development of our nation's domestic energy resources.”
Salazar always maintained that he and the president were pursuing a balanced energy agenda for the country. Republicans, backed by oil and gas companies, had a largely adversarial relationship with Salazar when it came to stewardship of federal lands. It became a prominent theme of Republicans in the 2012 presidential election.
In 2011, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) told Salazar during a committee hearing that he was “underwhelmed” by the administration's proposal to write a new five-year offshore oil and gas leasing program that would limit exploration to the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, leaving the East Coast and West Coast off limits and effectively declining to open new areas (42 ER 2586, 11/18/11).
Salazar said often and loudly that Republicans had “amnesia” when it came to offshore exploration, since they apparently had forgotten about the Deepwater Horizon accident, the nation's worst offshore oil spill and rig explosion that claimed 11 lives. The new leasing program for 2012-2017 went into effect in August 2012 with fewer lease sales scheduled than Republicans had wanted.
In response to Salazar's resignation announcement, Hastings said, “While we may not have always seen eye to eye on the issues, I thank Secretary Salazar for his service to our country and wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
“President Obama must now nominate a secretary of the interior who will realize the job and revenue-creating potential of all-of-the-above energy production, will use sound science to guide decision making, and will protect public access to public lands for recreation and economic development,” Hastings said.
“The committee will continue to hold the Interior Department accountable for both past and future actions and will continue to pursue strong oversight over department policies and regulations,” Hastings said.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, gave the most blunt assessment: “Secretary Salazar was not a friend to my home state of Utah or other public lands states for that matter. Under his watch, the Department of Interior sought to impose historic new limits on access and multiple use of our nation's resources and worked aggressively to hinder certain types of domestic energy production.”
Bishop said that “while Secretary Salazar does bear some of the blame for the administration's particularly abysmal first four years, it is not entirely his fault.” He said the administration's preference for renewable energy development over conventional fuels on public lands was bad policy.
Salazar said in his announcement that the Obama administration launched a “renewable energy revolution” during the president's first term.
Since 2009, Interior has authorized 34 solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects on public lands that total 10,400 megawatts, or enough to power over 3 million homes, according to the department.
Salazar also oversaw a “visionary blueprint” for solar energy development in the West and established the nation's first program for offshore wind leasing and permitting, the agency said. The first offshore wind project will be off the Atlantic Coast.
Salazar was the 50th secretary of the interior. The White House has not yet named a successor for either Jackson or Salazar.
A number of names have surfaced, including outgoing Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D), either to head EPA or Interior.
Another possibility at Interior is former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), now a senior adviser at Arent Fox law firm, who also is a frontrunner for the energy secretary position.
The administration could choose David Hayes, Interior deputy secretary, who was a deputy secretary in the Clinton administration. An environmental lawyer, Hayes heads an agency task force to improve safety of Arctic drilling.
The interior secretary post traditionally goes to a westerner, because the majority of public lands are in the West. Three former western Democratic governors on the short list are Bill Ritter of Colorado, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, and Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming.
Among current congressmen, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, is favored by environmental groups.
Heather White, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, told BNA that her organization wants someone at the head of Interior who understands the pressures for development on federal lands, and who will insist on strong oversight and accountability for the oil and gas industry.
She praised Salazar for his record on pushing for more disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, and for his decision to place a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims in about 1 million acres in the Grand Canyon region.
White said Gregoire would be “an exciting selection,” because she is not intimidated by industry opponents. She said Dorgan and Hayes also would be good choices.
Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, called Salazar “a true champion for protecting and restoring rivers” and said there is more work to be done to remove old and obsolete dams.
Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore drilling contractors, said Salazar “leaves a legacy that reflects strong leadership in the promotion of offshore wind resources and bolstering of certain safety protocols, but a missed opportunity to promote access in new offshore areas.”
Jim Noe, an executive for Hercules Offshore and head of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, which represents energy companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico, said, “We remember the tough days that followed the Deepwater Horizon incident during which Secretary Salazar presided over a moratorium on permits that created significant uncertainty for energy production and energy security.”
Noe said the permitting process has not yet returned to normal in the Gulf.
By Lynn Garner and Alan Kovski