When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took over a year ago, his department was reeling from scandal and plagued by criticism that it was too cozy with the oil and gas industry. Employees were found to be sharing cocaine and bedrooms with industry representatives — a symbol of just how close they had become under the Bush administration.
Earlier this month, Salazar received a different kind of gift from the oil and gas industry: a tiny sliver of candy, meant to symbolize what it sees as a small portion of public lands where it can drill under mounting Interior regulations.
With the words “there’s a new sheriff in town,” the Colorado rancher turned politician took the helm with a reform agenda. Like his boss, though, Salazar has caught heat from both sides. Some say he’s been too radical. Some say he hasn’t been aggressive enough. Supporters say he has blazed a pragmatic trail across the nation’s embattled public lands.
“I wouldn’t say that Ken has done everything that I thought he should. Maybe he’s made some decisions that I disagree with. But on balance, you’ve got to give the guy a ton of credit,” says Steve Torbit, Rocky Mountain Regional Director of the National Wildlife Federation.
When Salazar took office, he found himself facing the legacy of the Bush administration. He set about undoing many of the so-called midnight rules the departing administration had put in place. He appeared at the Minerals Management Service in Denver, pledging reform. The office, which handles billions of dollars’ worth of oil and natural gas, was blasted by an Inspector General’s report that found staffers had taken industry-funded trips, had sex with industry representatives and shared cocaine and marijuana with them.
Environmentalists scorned his decision to uphold the Bush administration’s removal of the gray wolf in the northern Rockies from the Endangered Species List, worrying that the wolf had not recovered enough to ensure its ability to rebound.
They praised efforts to rein in the oil and gas industry, though. Salazar scaled back a lease plan to research and develop oil shale projects in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. He set about probing Bush-era moves to lock in royalty rates on previous oil shale leases. He suspended most of 77 controversial oil and gas leases in Utah, some of them within view of national parks and archeological resources.
Earlier this month, Salazar unveiled a slate of leasing reforms meant to better protect the environment. Those reforms include implementing more interdisciplinary reviews of specific leases, scaling back so-called categorical exclusions and emphasizing leasing in already-developed areas.
“We believe there ought to be a balance,” Salazar told New West after taking the helm at Interior. “We believe we can find ways for development to move forward, but at the same time development moves forward, that we’re providing appropriate protections.”
Many environmental and sportsmen’s groups praised the changes as a tilt toward balance, but industry representatives blasted them.
Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, called the package a “bureaucratic command-and-control system in which government bureaucrats — rather than scientists with expertise in natural gas and oil development — dictate where energy development should occur.”
Two days later, the group sent Salazar .07 pounds of fudge in response to his assessment of public lands as the “candy store of the oil and gas industry.” Oil and gas occupies less than .07 percent of public lands in the West, the group said.
It was the latest jab in a volley between Salazar and the industry. IPAMS, which had issued a release welcoming Salazar when he was confirmed, has become a vocal critic. The group has criticized Salazar for withholding what it says are $100 million worth of unissued leases in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and delaying others unnecessarily.
Interior Secretary Salazar has repeatedly stated that the Obama Administration is not “anti-oil and gas,” the group said, “yet when it comes to Interior’s onshore natural gas and oil program, the record suggests otherwise.”
Salazar has rebuffed those allegations, blaming the Bush administration for issuing too many leases in inappropriate places and chastising energy companies for seeking more leases while leaving nearly half the active onshore leases undrilled.
Criticism hasn’t come only from energy interests, though.
“If I had to assign a grade it would be ‘incomplete,’ and if you force me to give a letter grade, it would be C-minus,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Ruch praises Salazar for settling a troubling Indian trust fund lawsuit left over from the Bush administration and repealing some of the eleventh-hour Bush rules, but he criticizes him for not doing enough to protect species like the wolf and grizzly, and for not taking stricter measures against oil and gas drilling.
“It really does feel very much like a third Bush term,” says Ruch.
He criticizes Salazar for not doing enough to protect department whistle blowers or increase transparency and says he worries that Salazar’s focus on renewable energy could bring its own threats to public lands.
“You’re going to have as many oil and gas rigs as Bush-Cheney, but they’ll have windmills on top,” Ruch says.
Such attacks are unfair, says Torbit, of the National Wildlife Federation.
“Ken’s a Westerner. He’s a pragmatist,” says Torbit. He praises Salazar’s reforms as a model other departments, like the Agriculture Department which oversees the Forest Service and Wildlife Services.
“There’s actually balance now in the Department of Interior,” he says.