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Interior Secretary's Legacy Defined By Issues Of Oil

Jan 16, 2013
Originally published on January 18, 2013 7:16 am

The Department of the Interior is huge — more than 70,000 employees manage a half-billion acres of public land, mostly in the West. The department does everything from operate national parks to administer Native American social programs and manage wild horses.

But Ken Salazar's four-year tenure as interior secretary has been dominated by his department's role in the oil business. Salazar announced Wednesday that he will leave his Cabinet post in March, adding to President Obama's second-term Cabinet turnover.

In addition to its many other roles, the Interior Department oversees oil and natural gas drilling leases on public land and offshore. And after BP's 2010 drilling rig accident and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Salazar said this on CNN:

"We have never seen anything that has been quite at this magnitude, so our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum to carry out the responsibilities that they have both under the law and contractually to move forward and to stop this spill."

Jim Noe, an executive at Hercules Offshore, says the comment set the tone for future meetings between Salazar and the industry.

"His demeanor and attitude toward the oil and gas industry was much the same — it seemed adversarial," Noe says. "Every time we met with Secretary Salazar, it always seemed that we were the teenage kid that had done something wrong."

After the Bush administration years, when allies ran the department, the oil industry had difficulty adjusting to a more vigorous regulator. But now Noe says business is good and obtaining drilling permits in the Gulf is getting easier.

That is not the direction environmental groups were hoping for. They tend to criticize Salazar for allowing too much drilling. But they also credit Salazar with giving renewable energy a boost during his tenure.

"One of the most positive things that he did ... was his promotion of the development of offshore wind energy," says Jackie Savitz, deputy vice president for campaigns at Oceana. Under Salazar, the Interior Department has streamlined the process for approving offshore wind permits, she says.

In addition to his energy work, Salazar will likely be remembered as a reformer.

Just before he became secretary, the department was hit by a sex and drugs scandal in its Minerals Management Service. Investigators found some employees were partying and having sex with people in the industry they were supposed to be regulating. Salazar got rid of the MMS and created new agencies. Now revenue collection is separate from environmental and safety regulation.

Salazar came to Washington in 2005 as a U.S. senator. After four years in Congress and the next four as interior secretary, Salazar says he's returning home to his native Colorado.

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Another member of President Obama's cabinet has announced that he won't stick around for a second term. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to leave Washington at the end of March and return home to Colorado.

NPR's Jeff Brady has this look back at Salazar's tenure.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The Department of the Interior is huge; more than 70,000 employees manage a half-billion acres of public land, mostly in the West. The department does everything from operate National Parks to administer Native American social programs and manage wild horses. But Ken Salazar's tenure as Interior Secretary has been dominated by his department's role in the oil business. Interior oversees oil and natural gas drilling on public land and offshore.

After BP's 2010 accident and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Salazar said this on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: We have never seen anything that has been quite at this magnitude, so our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum to carry out the responsibilities that they have, both under the law and contractually to move forward and to stop this spill.

BRADY: That boot-on-the-neck comment startled many in the oil industry. Jim Noe is an executive at Hercules Offshore. He says the comment set the tone for future meetings between Salazar and the industry.

JIM NOE: His demeanor and attitude towards the oil and gas industry was much the same. It seemed adversarial. Every time we met with Secretary Salazar, it always seemed that we were the teenage kid that had done something wrong.

BRADY: After the Bush administration years, when allies ran the department, the industry had difficulty adjusting to a more vigorous regulator. But now, Noe says business is good and obtaining drilling permits in the Gulf is getting easier.

That is not the direction environmental groups were hoping for. They tend to criticize Salazar for allowing too much drilling. Jackie Savitz, with the group Oceana, wants the U.S. to move more quickly away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Still, Savitz says one good thing the Interior Department did under Salazar was to streamline how offshore wind energy projects are licensed.

JACKIE SAVITZ: Rather than letting people guess at what the department might approve or might not, it says, these are the areas we're most likely to approve, so how about you focus in there. And then that saves a lot of time.

BRADY: Before Salazar became secretary, the Interior Department was hit by a scandal in its Minerals Management Service. Investigators found a few employees were partying and having sex with people in the industry. Under Salazar, the department got rid of the MMS and created new agencies. Now revenue collection is separate from environmental and safety regulation.

Salazar came to Washington in 2005, as a U.S. senator. After four years in Congress and four as Interior Secretary, Salazar says he'll return home to Colorado at the end of March.

Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.