As Salazar Heads Back to Colorado, Friends and Foes Reflect on His Time at Interior

Like any good — or bad — Secretary of the Interior, Colorado’s Ken Salazar will leave Washington in a few weeks with a long list of both friends and enemies. Thing is though, they’re pretty much the same friends and enemies he had when he got there.

While liberals and environmentalists tend to view Salazar as a centrist, moderate and level-headed pragmatist, conservatives and people in the oil and gas business sometimes have viewed him as an obstacle to the American Way.

“Secretary Salazar assumed the job with an attitude that the oil and gas industry needed to be reined in, and we have certainly seen the results,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government and public affairs at the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance.

“Production of oil and gas on federal lands is down even as it is up dramatically on private lands,” Sgamma added. “He pursued a conservation-only agenda at a time of economic stagnation and low job growth, and that is not meant to be a complement,” Sgamma said.

When Salazar stepped down from his U.S. Senate seat to accept President Obama’s appointment as Interior Secretary in early 2009, the agency was just emerging from a lurid sex, drugs and money scandal involving employees of the Lakewood-based Minerals Management Service, the Interior agency responsible for regulating oil and gas on public lands and waters.  Given that the scandal involved not just government employees but also their friends and cohorts in the oil and gas business, Salazar started reining in.

“Any analysis of Salazar’s tenure needs to be prefaced by the fact the office was plagued by scandal when he got there, so keeping that in mind, he did a pretty incredible job and put through a really aggressive reform agenda with really tough enforcement measures,” said Rick Palacio, executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaking in Colorado. (Image courtesy Department of Interior)

Before Salazar took over, the top people at Interior were “super cozy with the oil and gas industries,” says Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “The Department was a mess when he came in. The oil and gas industry could get anything they wanted, so today when the industry screams about regulation, it rings hollow.”

“From my perspective, the protests of the oil and gas industry are unfounded. They aren’t using the leases they have, but they want more. They have nothing to gripe about,” Palacio said.

In the past, oil and gas companies could secure leases for exploration and development on public lands and hold the leases for as long as they wanted without actually using them. Salazar implemented a policy in which leases expire if they aren’t used within set periods of time.

Salazar’s office did not respond to interview requests.

Family Ties
Political consultant Mike Stratton, a close friend of Salazar’s and the chair of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, said Salazar was asked to stay on at Interior but is leaving to take care of family business. Stratton said Salazar’s five-year-old autistic granddaughter has needs that he can best meet by moving back to Colorado. Salazar and his wife own a home in Denver.

“The President absolutely wanted him to stay, but Ken decided to take care of his family first,” Stratton said.

“Ken found the Secretary’s position to be a huge and humbling job. You can never get everything done that you would like to in a job like that even if you work countless hours, which he did. He would say that he worked very hard at a very big job and I think anyone can see that is true.”

Salazar’s brother John, who served three terms in the U.S. House from Colorado’s Third Congressional District, said Salazar is coming back to Colorado primarily to help care for his granddaughter. He said Salazar tried to move his family to D.C. when he became Secretary but found his granddaughter couldn’t get the therapy she needed in Washington, so the family came back to Denver.

“That therapy costs more than $100,000 a year,” John said. “That’s difficult on a public servant’s salary.” Salazar earns $180,000 a year at Interior. Even had Salazar stayed in the Senate, John Salazar figures his brother likely would have left. “I don’t know that being in the Senate would have made it any easier.”

In his first weeks in office, Salazar gave two speeches to employees — one in Washington and one in the Lakewood offices of
MMS – in which he referred to “criminal activity at the highest levels” in the Department and vowed change.

One of his first orders of business was laying out a set of ethical standards designed to make it clear that there was a new sheriff in town and that cozy relationships between regulators and the regulated would be a thing of the past. He then split the Minerals Management Service into three separate entities to reduce or eliminate the kinds of conflicts of interest that were exposed by the scandal.

Alternative Energy Takes Off
Though the Department was wracked by scandal, he quickly promised “a moonshot to energy independence” in the first speech he gave as Secretary. In that same speech, he reached back nearly 40 years to quote President Jimmy Carter calling on America to look at energy independence as “the moral equivalent of war.”

He said America had dropped the ball since then, and promised that under Obama’s watch curbing reliance on foreign fuel sources would become a priority not only for environmental reasons but also for reasons of national security. He said independence would require both continued development of oil, gas and coal as well as aggressive development of alternative energy — themes echoed by Obama in last week’s State of the Union speech.

Salazar’s legacy on development of traditional energy sources is open to debate, with some saying he was too restrictive and others arguing he was too permissive. Claims that he shut down development on public lands and waters, though, are simply wrong. The U.S. today gets more than half of its oil from domestic sources and oil imports are down about 10% since Obama took office in 2008.

On alternative energy, Salazar leaves a legacy of opening federal lands — and waters — to large-scale alternative energy development. The Department approved 34 utility-scale renewable energy installations on public lands, including solar, wind and geothermal facilities. When built out, these projects will be amongst the largest of their types in the world and could produce more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity — or enough power for about 3.4 million houses. The Department has also mapped out additional public lands — including some in Colorado — for future development of renewables. It says development of renewables has doubled in the U.S. since 2009. The Department has also proposed leases for the nation’s first offshore wind projects which, if developed, could power an additional 1.4 million homes.

“I think Ken joined Obama’s team hoping to do as much as he could to advance a clean energy agenda on public lands. There has always been a tie between public lands and energy but it is only under Ken’s leadership that we’ve seen public lands being used for clean energy on a large scale and that is because of Ken. He has a lot to be proud of,” said former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, now director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

Ritter says there is no doubt that Salazar would like to have accomplished more in the realm of clean energy, but he says prior to Salazar there was no national clean energy agenda for America’s public lands and that Salazar took the first step toward giving clean energy producers the same access to public lands that has long been enjoyed by the oil, gas and coal industries.

“Time and energy are finite, but Ken is indefatigable. This is not a guy who tires. I don’t think it would have been humanly possible to do more than Ken did,” Ritter said.

“I think he has done a lot on renewables, but I don’t think he has gotten enough credit for it,” said Palacio, noting that Salazar helped the country take its first steps toward “energy self-sufficiency.”

Maysmith said that when it comes to renewable energy, Salazar was really starting from scratch. “The Department was at ground zero on renewables and has taken significant steps under Salazar. He has done the groundwork for the next generation of projects.”

Even environmentalists have their criticisms when it comes to renewable energy. Chief among those is that utility-size plants have footprints that mar the landscape.

Dave Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said Salazar has taken environmentalists’ concerns to heart when siting energy plants on public lands. “The Department did a great job on balancing the need for renewable energy with protecting habitats,” he said.

In a widely publicized move, Salazar blocked new uranium development on a million acres near the Grand Canyon. That decision was greeted by cheers from the environmental community but was panned by energy developers and is now the subject of litigation.

The Loyal Opposition
Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative property rights oriented non-profit law firm, is one of the groups most unhappy with Salazar. Its website currently lists numerous cases against Salazar or Interior.

“We are in litigation challenging his million-acre lock-up of public lands,” said MSLF President William Perry Pendley. “There is simply no environmental basis for withdrawing that land from development.”

Pendley said Salazar has overreached with his wild lands proposals and with his oil and gas rules. “His regulations are killing hydraulic fracturing and will cost this country hundreds of millions of dollars for no reason, and will lead to lawsuits. He has abused his position.”

Sgamma agreed. “He has locked up plenty of land that is appropriate for development. It is the development of our resources that allowed the U.S. to build wealth and create jobs.”

She said Salazar has gone too far toward preservation at the expense of development.  “I don’t believe Secretary Salazar has achieved that balance. I believe it is the oil and gas business that has actually achieved the appropriate balance.”

While environmentalist may not want to knock Salazar publicly, Stratton said he has critics on both sides of the energy debate. “He tried to take a balanced approach or an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy and he probably angered as many people on the left as on the right. Ultimately he may not have satisfied either side.”

The Wilderness Society is one of the groups that has publicly blasted the Obama administration for bending over backwards for the oil and gas industries while not working hard enough to preserve the environment. Among their criticisms are de-listing the gray wolf in some states and his decision to allow drilling in the Arctic.

“He worked with both the conservation people and the energy people. He allowed the industry to participate in discussions on rulemaking in order to create balance between energy development and conservation. We now have rules in place, thanks to Ken, that are environmentally sound but also allow the industry to move forward,” said Ritter.

John Salazar said his brother has always been good at consensus building. “When it comes to the work Interior does, especially on energy, everybody has a side, but Ken was able to bring both sides together. If there are people in oil and gas who are angry with Ken, I really don’t understand that. They’ve issued more permits than ever before. They’ve opened more public land for development than ever before, so I don’t know what people are angry about.”

Salazar, himself, has referred to complaints from industry and Beltway Republicans as being “imaginary.”

Deepwater Horizon
The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, which killed 11 people and spewed roughly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, was a defining moment for Salazar, distracting him from other priorities.

“There is no question that pulled him off-message for a period of time, and that is not a criticism,” Maysmith said. “That took 100% of his focus, but he moved quickly to establish an independent agency to prevent things like this from happening again.”

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was catastrophic and should have been prevented. It was preventable. To his credit, Ken used it as an opportunity to create more rigorous safety and permitting standards and people there thank him for that,” Palacio said.

Stratton agreed that the oil spill was all-consuming for Salazar over a period of months. “A lot of people asked if he was big enough to handle that and looked at it as something that would really test his mettle.”

In the aftermath of the spill, Salazar instituted new, more difficult permitting requirements for off-shore development, including the requirement that lessees prove in advance they are prepared to deal with worst case scenarios. Rules were also implemented that require permit holders to remove drilling platforms when no longer in use and permanently cap wells that are no longer in use. Salazar beefed up ranks of enforcement and compliance staff. He proposed the establishment of an Ocean Energy Safety Institute, which has yet to be created.

He also implemented an immediate moratorium on offshore drilling, which was in effect for about 18 months. Since the moratorium was lifted in late 2010, drilling has returned to pre-spill levels.

John Salazar noted that when the spill occurred, his brother vowed to make sure British Petroleum paid for all the costs of the clean-up, including reimbursing the federal government for anything spent.

“Not a single penny of tax money was spent on the clean-up,” he said.

In speaking to Congress shortly after the spill, Salazar acknowledged that reforms — especially holding industry accountable for environmental disasters — had not been popular.

“I came to the Department of the Interior to change the direction of the Department and to restore the confidence of the American people in the ability of their government to carry out the functions under my charge.  That confidence had been seriously eroded by well-publicized examples of misconduct and ethical lapses.  This kind of fundamental change does not come easily, and many of the changes we have made have raised the ire of industry.  In the past 16 months our efforts at reform have been characterized as impediments and roadblocks to the development of our domestic oil and gas resources.

“But we have not, and we will not, back down on our reform agenda,” he told lawmakers.

He went on to say that the oil spill made his reforms all the more necessary.

“This tragedy and the massive spill for which BP and others are responsible have made the importance and urgency of this reform agenda ever more clear.  With this in mind, I announced last week a set of reforms that will provide federal inspectors more tools, more resources, more independence, and greater authority to enforce laws and regulations that apply to oil and gas companies operating on the (Outer Continental Shelf).”

Respect for Science
When Salazar took office, one of his promises was to implement science-based, rather than politics-based decision making, and to take climate change into account when making policy.
Interior has collaborated with other federal agencies and universities to open a number of regional Climate Science Centers around the country, including one in Ft. Collins.

“The Department today has a lot more respect globally and is seen as a place of bold leadership on climate and other issues,” said Maysmith. “Salazar has been a leader in that shift.”

Not every global issue grabs headlines like climate change. But Will Gartshore, senior program officer for U.S. government relations at the global World Wildlife Fund, said Salazar was instrumental in quieter issues such as cracking down on the trafficking of wildlife and parts poached from wildlife around the world. “He was consistently supportive of the need to stop rhino horns from entering the country.”

Gartshore said Salazar has also been instrumental in speeding up efforts to consider animals for endangered species inclusion and in taking climate change into account when looking at whether a species is endangered or not.

During Salazar’s tenure, Interior established seven new national parks and ten national wildlife refuges. As Stratton tells it, Salazar visited more National Parks than any Interior Secretary in history. “He understands the value of tourism.”

On water issues, Salazar juggled the interests of fish and wildlife, parks and tourism, Native American lands and people and facilities such as the Glen Canyon dam — and that’s just within the Department of Interior. Then there are the interests of cities, agriculture and various other non-federal players that were brought to the table.

Jim Lochhead, water attorney and CEO of Denver Water, said one of Salazar’s signature accomplishments was negotiating a major Colorado River agreement with Mexico that allows Mexico to store more water in the U.S. and also encourages more environmentally sound practices.

Lochhead said that with all the competing interests among the seven states who rely on Colorado River water, one thing he noticed was that Salazar elevated the role of parks and recreational uses. Interior also produced a major report on the Colorado River and its future that raises the question of whether the river will be capable of handling future demand. The answer, Lochhead suggests, is that the region’s water future will be determined largely by the ability and resolve of all the parties to continue working together and forging partnerships. While he said the influence of Interior is significant, in the end it all comes down to the states.

“I’m glad to have him back in Colorado,” Lochhead said, suggesting that Salazar’s influence on water issues would continue.

John Salazar said the one thing Salazar is likely to be remembered for is the establishment of the Great Outdoors America program in 2009, which created more than two million acres of wilderness areas, added more than 1000 miles of river to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program and put a conservation agenda front and center in the Administration.

As for what happens next in Salazar’s career, insiders expect him to spend some time in private legal practice, but also say they anticipate him taking another political role. Among the positions that get mentioned are governor, Supreme Court justice, vice president and even president.

“We haven’t seen the last of Ken Salazar in Colorado politics,” said Stratton. “He’s young enough at 57 to run for president. He has the experience as an attorney, Colorado attorney general, U.S. senator to be a solid Supreme Court justice. He’s a very young man.”