News broke this morning that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar will be stepping down in March and returning home to Colorado.
Salazar, who joined the cabinet after serving as a U.S. Senator (D-CO) and Colorado Attorney General, will be remembered for founding a renewable energy program for public lands and waters, overhauling offshore oil and gas drilling regulation in the aftermath of one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history, and championing community-based land conservation.
Salazar began his term as Interior Secretary by cleaning up the mess left by the George W. Bush administration, famously calling himself the “new sheriff in town” and vowing to reform a scandal-plagued oil and gas leasing process. Understanding that there are more values to lands and oceans than just oil and gas drilling, he implemented critical reforms to both onshore and offshore leasing, while at the same time overseeing a resurgence in production—in fact, there was more oil and gas production from public lands and waters every year between 2009 and 2011 than between 2006 and 2008.
Salazar’s efforts to reform offshore drilling were accelerated following the calamitous BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. In conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he oversaw response efforts in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. And despite intense criticism from industry, Salazar issued and maintained a moratorium on new deepwater oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico until reforms could be put in place. These included bifurcating the agency that had overseen offshore drilling leasing and operations, the Minerals Management Service, into two new agencies with separate and distinct responsibility for permitting and enforcement.
Onshore, Salazar prioritized the protection of public lands, by establishing seven new national parks and 10 new national wildlife refuges. In addition to these types of designations, he championed a new model of conservation by focusing on partnerships with private landowners, states, and other entities to protect large swaths of land.
For example, he proposed a conservation area in Montana’s Crown of the Continent that contains only about 40 percent protected public lands, with the rest linked by conservation easements and the efforts of private landowners. This is a“conservation agenda for the 21st century,” as Salazar stated, because it:
…turns the conventional wisdom about the federal government’s role in conservation on its head. Rather than dictate policies or conservation strategies from Washington, it supports grassroots, locally driven initiatives.
Similar conservation successes were achieved in Florida’s Everglades, Kansas’ Flint Hills, and North and South Dakota’s prairie grasslands.
Yet even with the tremendous gains in regulatory oversight and land protection, Salazar’s most enduring legacy will likely be his fight to make a place for renewable energy development on public lands and waters.
More than 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy have been permitted on public lands in the last four years, far more than all previous administrations combined. The Department also completed a landscape-scale overview of solar energy development on public lands, a paradigm shift for the way these places are managed for energy development.
And in the ocean, Salazar also made great progress helping the U.S. catch up to Europe and other parts of the world in development of offshore wind energy. He implemented a program known as “Smart from the Start,” which has resulted in the first-ever offshore wind leases in federal waters, and issued the final permits that will allow Cape Wind, LLC to begin construction on America’s first offshore wind farm.
Still, when it comes to public lands and waters, a number of fights remain. Salazar took the important step of issuing a Secretarial Order to address the impacts of climate change on natural and cultural resources, but challenges persist in reconciling this threat with the significant amounts of fossil fuels derived from public lands and waters.
Additionally, the incoming secretary will have a number of controversial issues to address, including the future of offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, coal production on public lands, updated hydraulic fracturing rules, and controversial onshore oil and gas projects.
Arctic Ocean drilling in particular has drawn a great deal of controversy, especially after the recent grounding of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig near Kodiak, Alaska – the latest in a long list of mishaps and opposition to offshore drilling in the remote and untested region. Salazar himself called the events “troubling” when he announced a high-level review 60-day review of Arctic Ocean drilling last week.
Secretary Ken Salazar’s legacy of responsible oil and gas development, advancement of renewable energy resources, and community engagement in conservation has laid the groundwork for a significant and durable land and ocean legacy that President Obama can achieve before leaving office.