Interior Secretary to Step Down in March

Source: By JOHN M. BRODER, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2013

Christopher Gregory/The New York Times

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last month. He focused on renewable energy at the agency.

WASHINGTON — Ken Salazar, the blunt-spoken lawyer and rancher who took over the scandal-ridden Interior Department at the outset of the Obama administration, said Wednesday that he would step down in March to return to his home in Colorado.

He did not say what he intended to do after leaving Washington, and the White House gave no hint of who might succeed him.

Mr. Salazar’s exit, along with the announced resignation of Lisa P. Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the anticipated departure of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, will leave vacant the critical cabinet posts dealing with climate change and energy, which are among the most pressing challenges facing the nation.

President Obama, who entered the Senate with Mr. Salazar in 2005, said that the interior secretary had helped expand the development of domestic energy resources while also protecting land, water and wildlife.

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

In his four years in office, Mr. Salazar, 57, has taken steps to turn the Interior Department from its traditional focus on mining, forestry and oil and gas development on public lands to a new emphasis on the development of renewable energy. Since 2009, the department has authorized 34 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects that eventually will produce more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than three million homes.

Mr. Salazar also oversaw the settlement of a 15-year legal battle waged by American Indian tribes who said that the federal government had cheated them out of billions of dollars in trust assets and lands managed by the Interior Department. The so-called Cobell suit was filed during the Clinton administration and resolved in 2009 with a $3.4 billion settlement that provided cash and land to thousands of tribal members and organizations.

He also established 7 new national parks and 10 new national wildlife refuges, and he blocked uranium mining in a million-acre buffer zone around the Grand Canyon.

But his tenure will be most remembered for his handling of contentious oil and gas issues, like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the decision to allow Shell to explore for oil in the Alaskan Arctic.

The BP disaster, in April 2010, killed 11 workers, fouled the Gulf of Mexico with millions of barrels of oil, and laid bare incompetence and corruption at the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency responsible for regulating oil and gas operations on public lands and waters.

Mr. Obama chided the interior secretary for using cowboy language — Mr. Salazar said of BP officials, “We have our boot on their neck to make sure they get the job done” — and for having moved too slowly to overhaul the minerals service despite years of obvious mismanagement and even criminal behavior.

To remake the regulatory agency, Mr. Salazar brought in Michael R. Bromwich, a former top Justice Department official who was one of several candidates suggested by the White House, to dismantle it and rebuild it as three separate agencies with clear authority over leasing, revenue collection, and safety and environmental protection.

The new agencies adopted rigorous rules for well safety and spill response, and they cleaned up a leasing process that under previous administrations had deprived the federal government of billions of dollars in oil and gas royalty payments.

The new safety apparatus gave Mr. Obama the confidence to expand leasing on public lands and to authorize Shell to begin drilling exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean last summer. But Shell’s project has been marred by repeated accidents, mismanagement and regulatory breakdowns, and last week Mr. Salazar ordered an emergency review of the Arctic drilling program that may lead to a new set of regulatory constraints or even a moratorium on new exploration off Alaska’s northern coast.

Mr. Salazar’s management of oil and gas resources on public lands became a subject of dispute during the presidential election last year. During the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of choking off leasing and reducing drilling permits by half, asserting that the historic spike in oil and gas production in the United States had come on private, not public, lands.

The reality was more complex. Hydrocarbon production on public lands has fluctuated during the Obama administration, but it has increased modestly — by about 13 percent for oil and about 6 percent for gas in the first three years of the Obama presidency, compared with the last three years of the administration of President George W. Bush, according to an analysis from the Energy Information Administration.

The Interior Department produced a report showing that drilling permits received and issued by the agency had indeed declined from the last years of the Bush administration to the first years of the Obama administration, but not by half.

Mr. Salazar, a fifth-generation Mexican-American who favors Western hats and bolo ties, had served as Colorado’s attorney general and the head of its Department of Natural Resources before his election to the Senate in 2004. His brother, John Salazar, represented Colorado in the House from 2005 to 2011.

As he juggled repeated crises in Washington, Mr. Salazar often spoke longingly of his life on the family ranch near the New Mexico border. He and his wife, Esperanza, are also the primary caregivers for an autistic 5-year-old granddaughter.

“Colorado is and will always be my home,” Mr. Salazar said in the statement announcing his departure.