Interior Secretary Ken Salazar leaving

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will leave his post in March with a mixed legacy on energy development, having approved the nation’s first major wind and solar installations on federal lands, but drawing fire from energy companies for “sluggish” permitting of oil and gas projects on U.S. property.

The former Democratic senator from Colorado _ who arrived on Capitol Hill with President Barack Obama in 2005 _ spent four tumultuous years overseeing oil drilling, recreation, grazing and other activities on federal lands and waters.

And for most of that tenure, Salazar was tangling with the oil and gas industry.

Although lawmakers and environmentalists widely praised Salazar’s focus on conservation at the Interior Department, he may best be remembered for presiding over the reorganization of government agencies that police offshore drilling in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Under Salazar’s watch, the Minerals Management Service was dismantled and replaced with three separate agencies tasked separately with collecting revenue from offshore energy development, leasing federal waters and overseeing the activity.

Salazar drew attention for his tough talk during the spill, when he famously declared that the Obama administration would “keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum.”

Salazar also imposed a five-month ban on most deep-water exploration while new oil still gushed from BP’s Macondo well and regulators developed new mandates in response to the disaster.

“We have undertaken the most aggressive oil and gas safety and reform agenda in U.S. history, raising the bar on offshore drilling safety, practices and technology and ensuring that energy development is done in the right way and in the right places,” Salazar said in a statement Wednesday. “Today, drilling activity in the Gulf is surpassing levels seen before the spill, and our nation is on a promising path to energy independence.”

Jim Noe, a vice president with Hercules Offshore, said those “tough days” were marked by “significant uncertainty for energy production and energy security.”

“While the Interior Department seemed to pursue long-shot energy alternatives, it created official and de facto moratoriums that hurt the industry, thousands of workers, and the small businesses and communities that depend upon them,” Noe said.

Randall Luthi, head of the National Ocean Industries Association, and a former MMS director under former President George W. Bush, noted the “difficult role” Salazar had to play during the spill, “as he balanced being a tough regulator with the need to let the industry stop the flow of oil in the Gulf of Mexico and establish safeguards to avoid a similar accident in the future.”

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, recalled Salazar’s stormy relationship with the oil and gas industry initially, when the two traded barbs via newsprint over the administration’s energy policy. But in recent years, Gerard said, “we’ve gotten away from the front-page dialogue and moved toward a constructive, offline (one).”

Salazar has met with the API’s board several times.

As Interior Secretary, Salazar made renewable energy development on public lands and waters a priority. Before he took office, no large-scale solar projects on federal lands had been approved. But Salazar’s Interior Department green-lighted 18 of them, the result of an initiative meant to streamline permitting of those projects.

All told, since 2009, the Interior Department has authorized 34 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands totaling more than 10,000 megawatts.

In a statement, President Barack Obama his one-time Senate colleague’s “successful efforts to expand responsible development of our nation’s energy resources.”

“In his work to promote renewable energy projects on our public lands and increase the development of oil and gas,” Obama said, “Ken has ensured that the department’s decisions are driven by the best science and promote the highest safety standards.”

At the same time, Salazar has drawn fire from oil and gas industry leaders who say he was focusing too much on speedier permitting of renewable energy projects while overlooking traditional fossil fuel development. Energy companies and their allies have complained that it takes far longer to get permits to drill on federal lands than on state and private tracts.

On federal lands . . . the trend seems to be to restrict, delay and obstruct,” Gerard said in a speech to an energy forum Wednesday. “From 2008 to 2011, both the number of drilling permits issued and the number of wells drilled on federally controlled onshore land has dropped over 35 percent.”

On Wednesday, Salazar appeared most proud of his work on what he calls “a conservation agenda for the 21st century.”

“From the Crown of the Continent in Montana to the prairie grasslands of Kansas to the Everglades Headwaters in Florida, we are partnering with landowners, farmers, and ranchers to preserve their way of life and the irreplaceable land and wildlife that together we cherish,” Salazar said in a statement. “We have established an enduring vision for conservation in the 21st century that recognizes all people from all walks of life.”

Salazar’s March exit will allow President Barack Obama to focus first on filling other open Cabinet posts, including those of the Secretary of State, Treasury Secretary, Labor Secretary and Environmental Protection Administrator. Although Obama has not named an EPA nominee, analysts widely expect a big fight over any candidate to replace outgoing EPA head Lisa Jackson, as lawmakers use the confirmation hearings as an opportunity to highlight concerns with the administration’s regulatory agenda.

In replacing Salazar, Obama could tap a western lawmaker or governor that has experience dealing with grazing, recreation and energy development on federal lands so widespread in that part of the country.

Gerard said there is value in having a westerner _ who has these issues “as part of their DNA” _ taking the job. “There is a leg up for somebody who has experience . . . in Western states,” he noted.

Obama also could choose to elevate Deputy Secretary David Hayes, who has spearheaded a commission on Arctic energy development and been heavily involved in efforts to improve the safety of offshore drilling.

Other potential nominees include Byron Dorgan, a Democrat who represented North Dakota in the Senate for 18 years, former Colo. Gov. Bill Ritter, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Dave Freudenthal, the former governor of Wyoming, which has 41,000 square miles of federal lands.

Ritter’s name has also surfaced as a possible replacement for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who has not said whether he will remain in Obama’s cabinet.

Salazar’s move appears likely to further delay any regulatory moves by the Interior Department, including a proposed rule to set mandates on the design of wells drilled on public lands and force energy companies to disclose the chemicals they use to produce natural gas at those sites.