WASHINGTON — It was one of his first moves as Interior secretary, just weeks after taking office: Ken Salazar tossed out Bush-era leases that would have allowed energy companies to pursue oil shale projects in the West while paying what he dubbed a “pittance” for the acreage.
Earlier this month, as Salazar neared the end his four-year tenure at the Interior Department, he issued another verdict on oil shale, this time signing a document that limited the research and development projects to just 678,000 acres of federal land, roughly a third what the Bush administration first put on the block.
The bookend decisions reveal much about how Salazar has approached energy and conservation during his time heading a department just as responsible for safeguarding millions of acres of public lands as it is profiting from industrial development of them.
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When those two missions conflict, Salazar has more often come down on the side of conservation — winning applause from outdoor enthusiasts and some environmentalists but drawing jeers from the oil and gas industry.
“He stepped into a situation where public lands are already very heavily regulated,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of the Western Energy Alliance. But “he chose to look at it as a situation that was out of control and needed to be reined in. … That’s exactly what he did.”
When asked to take over the Interior Department, Salazar wasn’t sure he wanted the job. He had developed deep relationships with his colleagues in the Senate and cherished his reputation on Capitol Hill as a problem-solver who worked to find the middle ground on divisive subjects.
Now, Salazar is slated to leave the nation’s capital whenever the Senate confirms his successor, probably in April. His plan is to return to his wife and autistic granddaughter in Colorado, where Salazar’s family has lived for four generations.
He will leave behind a mixed legacy, having allowed Shell Oil Co. to launch a new era of exploration in the Arctic over the objections of environmentalists, and having approved the nation’s first major renewable power installations on federal lands even as energy companies complained he did little to streamline drilling in the same territory.
And he will forever be linked to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — not just for his tough vow to “keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum,” but also for the sweeping overhaul of offshore drilling oversight that came afterward.
Salazar actually launched that process during his first week in office, unveiling a new ethics policy for the Minerals Management Service after a 2008 government investigation revealed employees in its suburban Denver office had used drugs and had inappropriate sexual relationships with oil-company representatives.
While oil was still gushing from BP’s failed Macondo well, Salazar imposed a moratorium on most deep-water exploration that lasted five months. Oil industry leaders blasted it as unnecessary, complained it lasted too long and took Salazar to court.
Salazar insists it was the right thing to do.
“I think they would have kept on going without changing much unless they knew how serious we were,” Salazar said in an interview. Now there are new workplace-safety, well-design and equipment-certification mandates governing offshore exploration, and oil companies must be able to contain an out-of-control well before winning drilling permits.
“Our oil and gas exploration activities are being done in a much safer way,” Salazar said. “I don’t believe we will ever see a runaway well in the Gulf of Mexico the way we did with the Macondo well.”
Industry leaders give grudging approval now.
Dan Naatz, vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association, said Salazar’s Interior Department ultimately succeeded in remaking the offshore regulatory regime.
“Although it’s not perfect and after the Macondo spill it took a long time for them to get going, they’ve come a long way to provide some certainty,” Naatz said.
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Salazar’s relationship with the oil industry has been complicated from the start. He never shied away from criticizing the industry or viewing his role as clamping down on the companies spending hundreds of millions to develop federal lands. In January 2010, Salazar insisted that regulators had been treating oil and gas companies as if they “were the kings of the world,” and the Interior Department essentially was their “hand maiden.”
Salazar says the Interior secretary inherently is squeezed on all sides.
“It’s the hallmark of doing a good job,” he said. “I’ve always seen my job as not being driven by making people happy, but getting to a solution that makes sense and will stand the test of time.”
One recent success came in the form of the tiny 2-inch dunes sagebrush lizard. As the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service mulled whether to put the lizard on the endangered species list, Texas Gov. Rick Perry used a meeting with Salazar to amplify concerns that protecting the reptile could halt drilling in the state.
After two years of deliberation and meetings with local stakeholders, the Interior Department decided last year not to designate the lizard as endangered, once landowners in Texas and New Mexico agreed to take steps to protect its habitat.
“We created 640,000 acres of conservation for the lizard but also allowed oil and gas development to move forward in the Permian Basin,” Salazar said. “It’s a huge win, and it’s how the Endangered Species Act should be used, in a way that you can accomplish both goals.”
Salazar counts some of his biggest successes in the realm of conservation and native American affairs. Under his watch, the U.S. established 10 new national parks and 10 new National Wildlife Refuges.
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Salazar also championed “a new model of conservation, which focused on partnerships with private landowners and states,” said Christy Goldfuss, public lands project director at the Center for American Progress. That approach paid off with cooperatives in the Everglades in Florida, the Prairie Potholes region of the Dakotas and other areas.
He set out to remake the government’s relationship with Native Americans, which he said was “moribund” just four years ago, in part because of a long-running class action lawsuit alleging mismanagement of land trust royalties. Salazar’s Interior Department settled the suit in 2010 and checks were sent to Native Americans two years later.
Salazar has clearly relished one part of his job at Interior: the chance to visit some of America’s most beautiful places. As secretary, he has been to the edge of Alaska, the rocky landscape of Utah and the California coast.
A former Colorado attorney general and U.S. lawmaker who was one of only two Democrats elected to the Senate in 2004 — Obama was the other — Salazar, 58, isn’t sure what’s next. He anticipates joining a law firm and focusing on natural resources, energy and environmental crisis management, but nothing has been finalized.
He doesn’t rule out further public service, including a run for governor.
“I love the work that I do as a public servant,” he said. “I think I have some other chapters left in me. I don’t know what they will be. But I’m keeping all my doors open.”
During four years as secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar has presided over weighty decisions affecting energy development. Here’s a look at some of the biggest:
Endangered species: Under a September 2011 settlement with environmentalists, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to decide whether to grant environmental protections to more than 800 plants and animals by 2018. Oil and gas industry leaders say protecting some of the species could imperil energy development throughout the West.
Drilling ban: During the 2010 Gulf oil spill, Salazar imposed a moratorium on most deep-water exploration. During the five-month ban, energy companies and drilling regulators worked to understand and comply with new requirements on both deep- and shallow-water exploration.
Offshore oversight: Salazar imposed a new ethics policy at the Minerals Management Service that oversaw oil and gas development on federal waters in 2009. A year later, after the spill, Salazar divided the agency into three bureaus in a bid to separate its conflicting roles.
Renewable energy: Salazar streamlined permitting of renewable energy projects on public lands by creating a new strike team focused on the projects. Before 2009, the government had not approved a single solar project on public lands, but in the four years since, Salazar’s Interior Department has authorized 18 of them.
Oil shale and tar sands: In February 2009, Salazar said he was tossing out Bush-era leases for energy companies to pursue research and development projects involving oil shale in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, saying their royalty rate was too low and the available land too great. Earlier this month, Salazar signed a record of decision limiting oil shale research and development to 678,000 acres of federal land.