Interior head Salazar ends first year with vows of reforms
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – Interior Secretary Ken Salazar started on the job a year ago pledging to clean up an agency hit by scandals and assailed by critics as under the sway of the oil and gas industry.
Starting his second year as head of the nation’s biggest landowner, Salazar said he will announce reforms in how energy leases are issued on federal lands and changes in how endangered species are protected.
The Colorado rancher and former U.S. senator’s actions on energy and endangered species won him praise and denunciation. The oil and gas industry has accused him of discouraging development on public lands, while conservationists see his second look at leases approved under President George W. Bush as a swing toward balance.
Environmentalists are suing to overturn Salazar’s decision to remove wolves in the northern Rockies from the endangered species list, a decision proponents believe was warranted as the population grew to an estimated 1,600.
“It’s been a tough year,” Salazar said in a New Year’s Eve interview with The Associated Press.
But, he said he feels good about the progress on the task he took on.
“What President Obama asked me to do when he brought me there was to reform the department and fix problems,” Salazar said.
He started last January with a visit to the Colorado office of the Minerals Management Service where more than a half dozen workers were disciplined or fired in 2008 after being accused of using drugs, having sex with oil and gas industry representatives and accepting gifts. Wearing cowboy boots and a hat, Salazar introduced a new ethics code discouraging “even the appearance of impropriety.”
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” Salazar said during a news conference near the wind-whipped foothills of Colorado’s Front Range.
Part of the new agenda has been to move quickly to develop renewable energy on public lands while making sure the public gets a fair return on current mineral extraction. Salazar suspended most of the 77 oil and gas leases sold in a highly contested auction in the Bush administration’s last days.
He first rescinded, then scaled back a lease offer for more research, development and demonstration oil shale projects in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. In October, he announced an investigation into last-minute changes made by the Bush administration that locked in royalty rates on thousands of acres of previously issued oil shale research leases on federal land.
But while Interior moves quickly to develop renewable energy on public lands, Salazar has insisted that natural gas is an important part of the country’s energy mix.
Industry groups claim the decisions are impeding domestic energy production. Jon Bargas of the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said about $100 million worth of leases are on hold in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado because of formal protests and legal challenges.
“When Salazar was appointed, we issued a statement congratulating him because we knew he understood the importance of oil and gas development in the West,” Bargas said. “We were somewhat surprised when we started hearing from some of our members about the slowdown.”
Bargas acknowledged the backlog started building under Bush. Low natural gas prices and recession also have slowed drilling, he added.
So many oil and gas leases were challenged during the Bush administration because the emphasis was energy development at the expense of everything else, said Steve Torbit, a former federal wildlife biologist now with the National Wildlife Federation.
“Secretary Salazar is working hard to strike a balance to benefit all aspects,” Torbit said.
This month, the Interior Department plans to unveil leasing reforms aimed at restoring confidence in the process for everyone, including the industry, Salazar said.
“I think the uncertainty that has been pervasive over the last several years on oil and gas leasing has been brought about because there’s been a rush to lease,” Salazar said. “We are not just about the business of letting the oil and gas industry run the Department of Interior.”
Salazar said he hopes to make changes in the next several months that streamline the endangered species process. He believes the Endangered Species Act gives federal officials enough flexibility to make it work better.
One wildlife advocate, though, said Salazar could help endangered species simply by following the law and relying on sound science. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians said with only two additions to the endangered species list the last year, Salazar is on pace to compile a worse record than his predecessors.
“There are about 337 species that are candidates or have been proposed for listing,” Rosmarino said.
Salazar’s decision to uphold the Bush administration’s decision removing the gray wolf in the northern Rockies from the endangered species list ignores concerns that the population hasn’t recovered to the point that its survival is ensured, Rosmarino said.
The wolf was removed from protection in Montana and Idaho, where a total of least 200 wolves were killed by hunters this fall.
Federal officials still manage wolves in Wyoming because they say the state’s plan wouldn’t adequately protect the animals.
“We were one of the most vocal critics of his appointment because of his spotty record on endangered species as senator and Colorado’s attorney general,” Rosmarino said.
Salazar said he is proud of his record in Colorado, where he also served as the state’s natural resources chief. He cited an agreement among Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and the federal government on use of the Platte River that protects endangered species.
And he believes the science on the gray wolf supported its delisting. His staff is working on ways to protect habitats and study the effects of warming temperatures on wildlife along with other issues of climate change. The goal is to go beyond “the number counting of how many species have we listed and how many have we not,” Salazar said.
The department will also introduce new initiatives with American Indians, Salazar said. In December, he joined Attorney General Eric Holder to announce a $1.4 billion settlement of a long-running lawsuit over money owed to American Indians for leases overseen by the agency and a $2 billion fund to settle other claims.
Salazar also said he wants to see the Statue of Liberty’s crown reopened to visitors to show that the Interior Department, which manages the monument, is a department of all Americans. The crown was closed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks due to security concerns.
“I think there’s a sense that somehow because we have a significant presence in the West, that we’re only the department of the West,” Salazar said. “The role the department plays touches everything that is the United States of America.”
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