Since Ken Salazar took over as Interior secretary, his first order of business has been undoing the last business done by the outgoing Bush administration.
Inheriting an organization marred by criticism that it kowtowed to the energy industry, Salazar has dedicated his first days to addressing scandals, pledging a return to science and promising to balance energy development and the environment.
His latest move came Wednesday when he announced he was rejecting bids on 77 controversial gas leases in Utah that critics said could threaten national parks and sensitive public lands.
“We believe there ought to be a balance,” Salazar tells NewWest.Net. “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.”
When Obama named Salazar, then a Democratic Senator from Colorado, as his pick for Interior, many environmental groups criticized the decision. Energy and agriculture interests, meanwhile, praised him as a man they could work with.
“He did not seem like someone who was going to be transforming Interior,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “He had a reputation as somebody who never met a water project he didn’t like.”
Rarely seen without his cowboy hat and bolo tie, Salazar doesn’t look the part of an environmental crusader. Like his brother Rep. John Salazar, a Democratic congressman, he hails from a farming family in the state’s poorest corner. A state attorney general turned lawmaker, he crafted himself as a political moderate, critical of Bush administration polices to speed drilling and oil shale development in some cases, opposed to some endangered species protections in others.
Ruch says he still hasn’t seen any sign Salazar will represent a break from Bush. “We would be delighted to be wrong and pleasantly surprised.”
Despite Salazar’s early praise from the energy industry, it blasted his Utah decision.
“It’s hard to imagine why this administration would come out with policies that limit economic development in Utah,” says Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. “A lease sale is an economic stimulus to the state and federal government. The state of Utah and federal government are losing millions of dollars from the lease sale.”
Interior may be ignored by much of the country, but it plays a key role in the West, overseeing oil and gas operations and managing 500 million acres of public land through the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and other agencies.
Under Bush, the BLM worked overtime to speed drilling on public lands, to the pleasure of industry and the consternation of environmentalists, who lobbed a constant volley of legal assaults to protect lands across the West.
“The Bush administration said early on the No. 1 priority of the BLM was to develop energy,” says David Garbett, staff attorney for the Southeast Utah Wilderness Alliance, which sued to have the controversial Utah parcels withdrawn. “Oil and gas needs to be the first thing.”
He calls Salazar’s performance “great so far.”
“It’s time to take a step back, breathe and really be more thoughtful about” oil and gas development, he says.
A scathing internal investigation found Interior staffers literally in bed with energy representatives. The September report by the department’s Inspector General detailed “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” at Interior’s Minerals Management Service in Denver between 2002 and 2006.
The office, which handles billions of dollars worth of oil and natural gas, had staffers taking industry-funded trips, having sex with and sharing cocaine and marijuana with industry representatives. The scandal mirrored what critics saw as an administration too cozy with the energy industry at the expense of the land it was charged to protect.
Standing in front of the Denver building at the heart of the scandals, Salazar announced last week, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
In recent days, two top staffers received wrist slaps for their roles. On Monday, Milton Dial, 60, got a $2,000 fine and an apology from a judge in Las Vegas, Nev. Investigators said he fed lucrative contracts to industry friends, including a company he joined after he retired. The following day, a judge in New Orleans handed probation and a $3,000 fine to Donald Howard, 59, a former supervisor who admitted he failed to report a $2,500 hunting trip he received from an oil industry contractor.
Salazar has pledged to look into other possible wrongdoing in the service, including delving deeper into cases where officials have decided not to pursue criminal charges.
He also has pledged to reexamine “a dozen or so” midnight maneuvers the Bush administration slipped in before leaving office.
“There were a number of decisions that were made by the Bush administration in the last several months in its existence,” he says. “In my view, several of those were rushed without going through the correct environmental review.”
Salazar declined to speak about them in detail or say which ones he was reviewing, but he said announcements will be forthcoming. Among the last-minute moves were efforts to speed oil shale development, let public land managers approve projects without considering impacts to endangered species and bar global warming from being considered in species decisions. One measure stripped requirements for emergency protections on sensitive Interior lands. Others exempted factory farms from air pollution reporting and permitted mountaintop mining companies to dump the waste in rivers.
“The policy positions of the department over the last eight years have really been driven out of the White House,” Salazar says, “and we are looking at many of the decisions that were made. “My charge from President Obama and the Department of Interior is to move forward to bring about the change that is required and implement a reform agenda.”
Some critics of Interior under Bush have praised his early steps.
“The Obama administration has already begun to implement a sound public lands policy that reflects the best interests of the American people, not the interests of the oil and gas industry,” says Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who has been pressing for years to have much of the controversial Utah land designated as wilderness.
Others say Salazar has a long way to go to undo the wrongs of the past.
“They need to restore balance,” Ruch says. For him, that means more transparency, more agency reformers and more funding for land agencies bled dry.
“In order to be a new sheriff,” he says, “you need more than a cowboy hat.”