After four tumultuous years heading the Interior Department, Secretary Ken Salazar is slated to step down as soon as his successor is confirmed.
In these edited excerpts from a wide-ranging interview, Salazar reflects on his tenure in Washington, D.C., including a brush with Texas Gov. Rick Perry over the dunes lizard, the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf oil spill and a more collegial Senate.
Q: The 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill is inevitably a part of your legacy. How do you feel about that?
A: (Well before the spill,) we had worked on energy matters, both on the renewable side as the oil and gas side, and we had reform efforts under way. I had testified . . . on the importance of getting organic legislation (authorizing the Minerals Management Service). I had worked to get additional resources for MMS. I had (told MMS) that we were going to clean (its) scandals up and set about a code of ethics to do that.
So we were on this before the oil spill. The oil spill itself created a huge focus on the regulatory side of ocean energy and the safety side of ocean energy.
The oil spill had me spend a tremendous amount of time in two ways, first on the response itself, because I felt I had a responsibility to do everything I could to stop the well and make sure we were doing everything on the part of the United States to clean up the environmental pollution. That consumed a huge amount of my time. Then, beyond the response, there were the efforts to overhaul the agencies, to create the Bureau of Ocean Energy and the (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.)
It is one of the signature issues that will define my time at Interior. It has to do with the fact that it happened. It had to do with the way that we responded and it also has to do with the huge commitment – which we’ve doubled – to make sure we are restoring the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico.
Q: What do you regret — or are most proud of — in the response to the spill?
A: What I’m happiest about is, I think, the United States is in a place where our oil and gas exploration activities are being done in a much safer way. I don’t believe we will ever see a runaway well in the Gulf of Mexico the way we did with the Macondo well, and that’s because we have Helix and MWCC, and industry knew we were serious. When industry came complaining about what I call the pause, the moratorium, I think knowing some of the history of industry, I think they would have kept on going without changing much unless they knew how serious we were on our side.
It was because of this efforts that ultimately industry stepped up and (created) MWCC, and some of the smaller companies decided to go with Helix. And now you have two consortia here in the Gulf of Mexico that have capping stacks, who aren’t out there trying to construct something (during an emergency) as happened with BP and the Macondo well. I feel good about where we are. I wish the oil spill had never happened, because frankly it was a bad thing for people and a bad thing for the environment.
But it’s like all things in life, when a crisis comes at you, my philosophy is you have then an opportunity to do as much as you can to learn from it and prevent the crisis from ever happening again.
Q: Looking back, what is your biggest success at Interior?
A: I had three north stars that guided me when I came into Interior. On all three north stars, I am equally proud of our achievements.
One, moving us into a new energy world. We’ve done that very well in the oil and gas world and we did that despite having to deal with the national crisis of the oil spill. We created a revolution of renewable energy on public lands. …I believe that we have contributed in a significant way to achieving some historical (landmarks) in both legs of the energy world.
The second north star for me was conservation — America’s Great Outdoors and how we implemented that program around the country. Our conservation efforts are huge in number. We created 10 national wildlife refuges on my watch. We will have created 10 national parks. I helped spawn a new era of conservation, working with private landowners in states and federal government.
The third area has been working to develop a new chapter for the nation’s First Americans and Alaska Natives. When I came in to Interior, it was, I would say, a moribund relationship and a negative relationship. We resolved the Cobell litigation that had strangled the department for multiple secretaries and nobody thought we could get it done. Nobody. . . . We got Cobell done. We got water rights settlements done all across the country (including a deal to have) a water supply pipeline built that will provide potable water to 200,000 people of the Navajo nation for the first time in their history. The Navajo have given me an honorary name: the Spanish Man who Brought Us The Water.
There’s a lot more to do in each one of those, but I feel it’s been a good tour of duty.”
Q: What do you regret? What would you do over?
A: In these last two years, despite having very strong relationships with my colleagues in the U.S. Senate, I wasn’t able to get the secretary for the land and minerals confirmed, Marcilynn Burke. I was unable to get Rebecca Wodder confirmed. I wish I had been able to have a complement of a team for the entire four years.
In terms of policy, we came very close to full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. On four different occasions, the president agreed with me and put it in the budget (request). As much as I tried, I didn’t get enough.
There’s probably a hundred more projects like that that are huge that I wish we would have gotten done.
The Gulf of Mexico Trans Boundary Agreement. I spent a huge amount of my own personal time, traveling to Mexico, meeting with the president of Mexico and others, and we have a deal done (though it hasn’t been ratified by the Senate). You work on things, and many of them you tee them up for someone else to take across the finish line. That’s one that will get done, probably in the next year or two. It should get done because it makes so much sense for the Gulf of Mexico.
Q: Did you have misgivings when you started?
A: I was not sure for a while when I took this job that it had been the right choice to leave the United States Senate to be on the cabinet as the secretary of Interior. Four years later I can tell you that it was absolutely the right decisions because I have been able to do so much as the executive of a very significant department of the United States that affects land, water, wildlife and people in 50 states and all out into the oceans of the United States as a way that I could never done as a U.S. senator. In the U.S. Senate, you’re one in 100, or 1 in 535.
(When I was in the Senate,) it was a time when the Senate was functional, not partisan. In 2005, we passed the Energy Policy Act. I still remember the meetings with Sen. Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, and I was one of the players. In 2006, we did the (Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act) and (later) the Energy Independence and Security act. Those three pieces of energy legislation are the most important energy legislative policy pieces in the last 30 years. And I played a key role in them.
It was a time when the Senate was producing things. The dynamics changed in some way. I don’t think U.S. senators today are able to get the things done that we were able to get done during the time that I was there. I feel very good about my chapter there, and I feel very good about the relationships I have with the senators, some of whom have come in since I left.
Q: What is next for you?
A: In general, my thought is that I will probably join a law firm and do natural resources, energy and environmental crisis management work. Two, find a corporate board or two where I can serve. And three, I may sign up with one of the speakers bureaus . . . if there’s a market out there.”
Q: Will you return to state politics?
A: I don’t know what the political world will be for me. I love the work that I do as a public servant. That work has come both in elected office as attorney general and U.S. senator and as secretary of Interior. 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.
I never sought this job, I never asked anyone to appoint me. The opportunity came to me and I made the decision to go for it. I never was looking to run for the United States Senate, but then my predecessor and very good friend Ben Nighthorse Campbell decided that he wasn’t going to run. I was not intending to run — it was March of ’04, only seven months before the election. I was attorney general and had two years left. There were two Democrats who jumped into the race. I decided what I would do was to see whether I could get them to agree to support one or the other and the other would drop out. And after four days of trying to resolve it, neither one of them was going to get out of the race, so I decided to jump in the race and they both endorsed me.
Then I came to Washington and became a U.S. senator. So I didn’t chart any of this out. It happened in a good way. I don’t know what the future holds. I know it’s good.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing your likely successor, Sally Jewell?
A: The single biggest challenge will be having the resources for the Department of Interior to do its job, because in the context of the sequester and now the (continuing resolution), we are being asked to do a lot more for the people of the United States every day but our resources are being significantly diminished. When you put sequester together with these additional cuts in the CR, we are returning to budgets of a decade ago. In the meantime, the United States population has grown a huge amount (and) the challenges we face in the 50 states are more difficult, so that’s going to be the single biggest challenge: Are the resources there for Interior to do the job that it is assigned to do by the statutes of the United States?
Q: Whether it’s the Bureau of Land Management rule on hydraulic fracturing or endangered species, you seem to often be caught in the middle of some big disputes. Is it hard when the oil industry is complaining one day and environmentalists are complaining the next, and either way, you can’t get it right?
A: It’s the hallmark of doing a good job. if I was taking one route, or (focusing on) just one part of the spectrum, I would be doing the job in the wrong way and I wouldn’t be bringing balance to the problem. These are all huge challenges that we face in the energy world, in the conservation world, even in the Native American world. I’ve always seen my job as not being driven by making people happy, but getting to a solution that makes sense and will withstand the test of time. So yes, our (hydraulic fracturing) rule has taken longer time than I anticipated it would take, but I think that when it does get done it will stand the test of time and it will become template for how hydraulic fracturing are (handled).
Q: The criticism is inevitable. How has your relationship with the oil and gas industry changed? There was a time when you and American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard were trading insults by headline.
A: I think with CEOs of the conservation community and the oil and gas world I have generally a great relationship. With Marvin Odum (of Shell), Ryan Lance from ConocoPhillips, with Jim Hackett at Anadarko, I have great relationships and great respect for them. So if you look at industry, I separate them from the trade association mouthpieces. Jack Gerard is the mouthpiece for the API. He has to take the positions of the trade association. A lot of times, I think those positions are simply wrong, but their role is to be an advocate.
It is a job where a lot of people . . . say you can’t make everyone happy, you’re always making everyone mad. It’s true. But I can count thousands of examples, of projects where we were able to solve problems.
On the dune lizard issue, I remember when I went in my first meeting with Rick Perry in Austin Texas.
(He asked about) the dunes lizard, and (stressed) how I had to take the side of jobs and energy and the economy.
Two years later or so, because of many meetings, bringing people together, we were able to announce the finding on the dunes lizard that created 640,000 acres of conservation for the lizard, but also allowed oil and gas debt to move forward in the Permian Basin. 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. Rick Perry still probably wouldn’t say nice things about me, but it’s okay.