News Section
Stories from Climate Central's Science Journalists and Content Partners

Salazar Leaves Contested Legacy as Interior Secretary

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian

Barack Obama's top adviser on oil drilling and the management of America's last wide open spaces announced on Wednesday that he would leave the cabinet by March.

The departure of Ken Salazar as interior secretary leaves Obama with virtually a clean slate to remake his energy and environmental team. The only other original member of Obama's original green "dream team," the Nobel prize-winning energy secretary Steven Chu, is also expected to step down at the start of Obama's second term.

Ken Salazar will step down as interior secretary by March.
Credit: Jeff Haynes/Reuters

As interior secretary, Salazar had a complicated relationship with environmentalists. As the executor of Obama's all-encompassing energy strategy, Salazar angered activists by approving coal and oil projects on public lands in the west, and allowing Shell to being drilling in Arctic waters.

Potential successors included three governors – Colorado's Bill Ritter, Washington's Christine Gregoire and Montana's Brian Schweitzer – as well as the former North Dakota senator Byron Dorga and Arizona congressman Raúl Grijalva, according to news reports.

Salazar's biggest legacy after four years as secretary may well be the overhaul of a lax and out-dated regulatory regime for the country's offshore oil industry, after the 2010 BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

A number of inquiries in the wake of the disaster exposed a cozy relationship between industry and regulators. Under Salazar's direction, the corrupt and scandal-ridden Minerals Management Service was broken down into three independent agencies.

"We have undertaken the most aggressive oil and gas safety and reform agenda in U.S. history, raising the bar on offshore drilling safety, practices and technology and ensuring that energy development is done in the right way and in the right places," Salazar said in his exit statement.

After the BP spill, Salazar went on to lease millions of acres of new areas for oil and gas development.
Credit: flickr/mikebaird

But Salazar, after briefly closing down drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP spill, went on to lease millions of acres of new areas for oil and gas development. As of Wednesday, he said, there was more drilling in the Gulf than even before the BP disaster.

Salazar also over-rode objections from environmental groups and scientists and allowed Shell to begin preliminary drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas last summer. Shell's readiness to drill in the harsh and remote environment of the Arctic was called into question after a series of equipment failures. Its oil-containment dome was crushed like a beer can in a test in Puget Sound.

Salazar, in one of his final decisions as interior secretary, was forced to order a high-level, 60-day review of Shell's preparations and safety regime for Arctic oil drilling.

He was on more solid footing with environmental groups regarding his support for renewable energy. He revived solar, wind and geothermal proposals that had stalled under George Bush, pushing through nearly three dozen new projects on public lands. He also opened up offshore wind development on the Atlantic coast.

"Today, the largest solar energy projects in the world are under construction on America's public lands in the west, and we've issued the first leases for offshore wind in the Atlantic," Salazar said. "I am proud of the renewable energy revolution that we have launched."

In his statement, Salazar also spoke of his establishment of seven new national parks and 10 new wildlife refuges, and reforming laws for home ownership on Indian lands.

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian