Ken Salazar, The ‘New Sheriff’ At Interior: Oil And Gas Interests ‘Do Not Own The Nation’s Public Lands’

By Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Ken SalazarWhen president-elect Barack Obama nominated Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to head the Department of Interior at the end of 2008, some voices in the conservation community wondered whether the moderate Democrat with ties to ranching and other traditional western industries was the best choice to chart a new direction in managing one-fifth of the nation’s land. But immediately after taking office, Salazar quickly moved to dispel many of those worries with a series of directives that forcefully demonstrated that the Bush era had ended, particularly on policies related to energy development on federal lands:

— He suspended 77 controversial oil and gas leases in Utah, some of them near national parks and national monuments.

— Understanding that renewable energy projects create more jobs than fossil fuels development, he directed his agencies to make the development of renewable energy a priority.

— He withdrew the Bush administration’s industry-friendly research and development leases for oil shale development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

— He launched a department-wide effort to ensure that federal land management decisions respond effectively to climate change.

And, saying “There’s a new sheriff in town,” he began to clean up the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service, the Interior agency that oversees royalty collections from oil and gas companies operating on federal land and offshore.

A year later, Salazar is still riding herd on an industry that had grown accustomed to getting nearly everything it wanted from Washington. Early last month Salazar announced that his department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would conduct more thorough environmental reviews of potential oil and gas leases – including site specific inspections — and that a new departmental team would oversee energy reforms, so Interior would no longer be a “candy store” for the fossil fuels industry:

The previous administration’s ‘anywhere, anyhow’ policy on oil and gas development ran afoul of communities, carved up the landscape and fueled costly conflicts that created uncertainty for investors and industry. We need a fresh look – from inside the federal government and from outside – at how we can better manage Americans’ energy resources.

The Bush administration did industry’s bidding for eight years: from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2009, more than 41,700 drilling permits were approved on federal lands, almost two-and-a-half times as many as during the previous eight years. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office found that the “dramatic increase” in oil and gas development on federal lands had undercut the BLM’s ability to meet its environmental obligations. The pace of development was such that rural Sublette County, Wyoming – which doesn’t even have a traffic light – recorded ozone levels in February 2008 that were nearly 50 percent higher than federal health standards. But it wasn’t just the numbers, it was also the cherished places the Bush administration wanted to drill: Colorado’s Roan Plateau, New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, the Wyoming Range, and the list goes on.

Last November, American Petroleum Institute (API) president Jack Gerard accused the administration of taking “a series of actions…to delay or thwart oil and natural gas exploration.” The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS) that same month accused Interior of “irregularities” in cutting lease sales and failing to issue $100 million in leases already sold, even though federal records show that more than 45,000,000 federal acres were under lease as recently as last fall, and that more than 32 million of those acres had yet to be into production.

Salazar, to his credit, has not backed away under industry criticisms, calling them “poison and deceptive.” Oil and gas interests, he said, “do not own the nation’s public lands; taxpayers do.”

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