Interior Secretary Salazar to leave office in March
WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement that he's stepping down at the end of March leaves his successor to grapple with contentious issues including drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska and fracking for natural gas and oil on public lands.
Names mentioned as potential replacements include outgoing Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, former Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and former Govs. Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming and Bill Ritter of Colorado.
Environmental groups are pushing for Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., to get the job.
Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, said on Wednesday that he is leaving the Cabinet position after four years to return his home state.
“Colorado is and will always be my home. I look forward to returning to my family and Colorado after eight years in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Salazar had an eventful term as interior secretary.
He responded to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest offshore spill in U.S. history, and imposed a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling permits as a result of the disaster.
Salazar's department came up with new drilling rules and reorganized the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service, whose oversight of offshore drilling was toothless and discredited by sex, drugs and gifts scandals left over from the previous administration.
President Obama, who has not signaled who might take over as Interior secretary, praised Salazar on Wednesday. “In his work to promote renewable energy projects on our public lands and increase the development of oil and gas production, Ken has ensured that the department's decisions are driven by the best science and promote the highest safety standards,” Obama said.
The six-month moratorium after BP's disaster angered some members of Congress and the oil industry, which complains it's still too hard to drill.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a written statement on Wednesday that it's “past time for him to step down.”
Salazar also has clashed with environmental groups, particularly over his backing of Shell's efforts to drill for oil in Arctic waters off Alaska.
Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby in November called the Arctic permitting “a model of how offshore permitting could and should work.”
One possible replacement for Salazar, his deputy David Hayes, has been closely involved in crafting the department's offshore Arctic policy.
“Secretary Salazar's departure leaves behind a mixed legacy,” said Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental group Oceana. She said Salazar forged ahead in renewable energy development, including authorization of 34 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects.
“We cannot forget that during his term, Secretary Salazar also approved offshore drilling in the Arctic, which has proven to be as dangerous as we predicted,” Savitz said.
Arctic offshore drilling will be a major issue for Salazar's replacement. The Interior Department and the Coast Guard are investigating Shell's multiple mishaps off Alaska, including the grounding of a drill rig this month.
His replacement also will have to tackle the emotional issue of fracking — hydraulic fracturing — for natural gas and oil. The process stirs up fears of groundwater pollution. The Interior Department delayed finalizing rules to impose new controls on fracking, saying officials need to analyze 170,000 comments on the changes.