Salazar: Fracturing chemicals should be disclosed

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar may be headed for the exits, but he isn’t slowing down.

Salazar, the quiet Westerner who oversees America’s public lands, stopped by San Francisco Wednesday to announce the approval of three more big renewable power projects, two of them located in the California desert. Together, the three projects — two solar, one wind — will add another 1,100 megawatts of electricity to the power grid, enough for more than 340,000 homes.

It’s probably Salazar’s last SF visit before leaving office, assuming the Senate promptly confirms his replacement (REI chief executive Sally Jewell). So he took a few minutes to meet with San Francisco Chronicle editors and reporters to discuss what he’s accomplished in office, as well as the work that lies ahead.

Soft-spoken but hardly shy, Salazar touted the administration’s push to develop renewable power, with domestic wind and solar generation doubling in the last four years. His office has approved 37 renewable projects — many in California — capable of supplying 3.8 million homes. He called California’s renewable energy development “the most robust renewable energy program probably in the history of the world.”

He also called for the nation to adopt one of California’s policies driving all that growth — the “renewable portfolio standard.” State law requires utility companies to get a specific percentage of their power from renewable sources, meaning wind and solar developers know there will be a market for their electricity.

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“If we were to do the same thing on a national level, it would be a great incentive — you’d see a lot more happening,” Salazar said. Many environmentalists would like nothing better.

But Salazar also made clear that the Obama administration will continue to push oil drilling as well, as much as the president’s green base may hate it. Domestic oil production has soared due to the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. And despite environmentalists’ misgivings, Salazar insisted fracking can be done safely.

His office is developing fracking regulations for public lands, and Salazar said that those rules would include three key principals.

Drillers must ensure the structural integrity of their wells, lest chemicals leach into the ground. Water used for fracking can’t be allowed to contaminate streams when it comes back up the well. And frackers must disclose the chemicals they use in the process. Some companies have agreed to do so, while others have refused, saying their chemical recipes are trade secrets.

“There has to be disclosure,” Salazar said. “People need to know what’s being injected into the underground. I tell people in the oil and gas industry that unless they embrace a set of reforms like that, including disclosure, that it’ll be the Achilles Heel of their industry.”

When pressed for an opinion on the Keystone pipeline controversy, Salazar declined. Environmentalists loathe the proposed pipeline, which would bring synthetic crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to America’s Gulf Coast. Conservatives, as well as many of the president’s supporters in organized labor, love it, saying it would give the country a reliable oil supply from a friendly source.

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Salazar didn’t endorse or slam the project. But the way he framed the issue suggests the administration may view Keystone through an economic lens, rather than an environmental one.

“We need to power our economy,” Salazar said. “We also believe that we need to make sure we’re taking maximum advantage of clean energy sources. But even if we were doing everything we possibly could to harness the power of the sun and the wind and geothermal and biofuels … even if we did all that, we’re still going to need oil and gas. So then the question becomes, ‘Where does it come from?’ And that will all be part of the deliberations that take place.”