Western candidates top list of prospects to head Interior

Oil and gas industry leaders are counting on President Barack Obama to tap a new Interior Secretary who has deep experience dealing with energy development on public lands.

Secretary Ken Salazar is set to leave the Interior Department by the end of March and return to his home state of Colorado.

Possible replacements include current Deputy Secretary David Hayes, as well as an assortment of leaders from western states, including Byron Dorgan, a Democrat who represented North Dakota in the Senate for 18 years, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said that the best pick is someone who has a deep understanding of the “unique opportunities and challenges coming from public lands.”

“It’s important to have somebody who has that as part of their DNA, who comes from a state generally that has a very significant federal land ownership,” Gerard said. “They come ready made to understand the nuances, the dynamics, the governors’ role, the federal role (and) how you integrate that.”

“There is a leg up for somebody that has the experience of being in a dominantly federally controlled state,” Gerard added.

The Interior Department oversees more than 250 million acres of public lands and manages their varied uses, from recreation and conservation to grazing and energy production.

Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, underscored the importance of that background.

“We’re always looking for somebody who carries into that job a sense of the multi-purpose use of federal lands,” he said.

In particular, independent oil and gas producers are eager to see someone who would be interested in enhancing the role of energy development on public lands.

“Over the past several years, (the administration has tended) to be diminishing the role of energy production on federal land at a time when we think they should be aggressively pursuing it,” Fuller said.

Industry leaders and allies have complained that a sluggish permitting process discourages energy development on public lands, in favor of oil and gas drilling on private tracts.