Obama names Salazar to lead 'deeply troubled' Interior Department

Praising his nominee's ability to bring groups with opposing viewpoints together to reach solutions, Barack H. Obama formally nominated US Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) on Dec. 17 to lead what the president-elect termed a "deeply troubled" Department of the Interior.

"Part of what I want to put an end to is an Interior Department that sees its job as simply sitting back, waiting for whoever has the most access in Washington to extract what they want. I want it to be on the cutting edge of environmental and conservation policies so that commercial interests are just one group among many that are being listened to and brought together to craft the kind of policies we want to see," Obama said at a Chicago press conference where he also named former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as his Agriculture Secretary.

He said that Salazar has extensive experience on a lot of issues the new administration will confront in both traditional and new forms of energy. "If there is going to be a debate about oil shale, I want Ken at the table," the president-elect said.

"I want a more pro-active Interior Department. I also want an Interior Department that, very frankly, cleans up its act. There have been too many problems and too much emphasis there on big-time lobbyists in Washington and not enough on what's good for the American people. That's going to change under Ken Salazar," Obama said.

'Pivotal time'

Two congressional energy leaders immediately applauded Salazar's nomination. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), who has frequently criticized DOI's resource management practices since Democrats regained control of the House in 2006, said that he is looking forward to working with the Colorado Democrat in his new capacity. "He will be taking the helm of the agency during a particularly pivotal time in our nation's history, as Americans are faced with a downward spiraling economy and are having to make tough decisions about their futures," Rahall said.

"In the weeks and months ahead, we face many challenges in balancing those concerns with fulfilling our stewardship and trust responsibilities to America and her citizens. I am confident that Sen. Salazar shares my same commitment to invoking the change that is needed to restore the vigor and vitality of America, including the unique natural and cultural heritage that has shaped our nation as we know it today," he continued.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said that he would be sorry to lose Salazar as a committee but added that the Coloradoan would be a superb Interior secretary. "I'm delighted that President-elect Obama has chosen someone who has the record and the background and knows the substance as well as Ken. He understands how to manage federal lands and resources and knows the importance of working with stakeholders while protecting the public interest," Bingaman said.

"Ken also will provide a strong Western voice in the Cabinet, and he'll do a terrific job working with the states and the [American Indian] tribes. As a leader, he'll bring change to the department in some important problem areas," the senator added.

Part of larger team

Obama said that both nominees would work with others he announced earlier in the week to develop a new US energy economy that relies more on domestic alternative and renewable resources and less on foreign oil. "One of Ken's critical roles as well will be working with our energy team to make sure that we are using our natural resources in a sustainable way and developing the kind of energy we can use to sustain our economy. Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields at home. These are the kind of leaders I want in my cabinet," he said.

"As a nominee for secretary of the Interior, I will do everything I can to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. I look forward to working with President Obama as part of his team as we take the moon-shot to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and develop the new energy economy," Salazar said. He added that he would make sure that traditional resources including oil, gas and coal are properly managed in addition to working to develop new forms of energy.

The presidents of two leading independent oil and gas producers' associations also applauded Salazar's selection. "As a citizen of the West and a public servant with a deep appreciation for the role the federal government plays in the economic future of the regions, Sen. Salazar knows better than most the importance of the job he is about to take on," said Barry Russell of the Independent Petroleum Association of America in Washington.

"Perhaps at no point in our nation's history has the secretary of the Interior been in a better and more direct position to contribute to the long-term health and security of our nation. We have every expectation that the senator will seize this new initiative, re-orient himself with the vital energy needs of our nation and take meaningful steps to ensure these needs are swiftly met," he continued.

'Willing to listen'

During his US Senate tenure, Salazar has demonstrated that he's willing to listen to all sides and viewpoints and find common ground on complicated and contentious energy issues, Russell noted. "He is also a life-long advocate of a multi-use approach to managing our public land and accessing safely the resources that lie beneath it. The livelihoods of thousands of independent oil and gas operators across the country remain inextricably linked to that access, and that's a point we intend to make early, often and with purpose as this new administration begins to take shape," he said.

Marc W. Smith of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said that the Denver-based organization had worked with Salazar for many years and is confident that he views natural gas development in the area as an important long-term element in national and regional energy supplies. "As a Westerner, Sen. Salazar knows that green jobs in the natural gas industry are important to state and local economies. Since many states increasingly look to gas to complement and enable renewable energy technologies, there is a strong rationale for consistent and responsible development on federal lands in the Intermountain West," he indicated.

Gas production from the region will become even more important as Obama tries to carry out his campaign promises to make the country less dependent on foreign energy sources while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Smith added. Ninety-seven percent of the gas which the United States consumes is produced domestically (with 27% coming from the West) and, since it emits just over half the carbon dioxide of coal, it will become even more significant, he said.

"We look forward to working closely with Sen. Salazar and are pleased the president-elect has chosen someone who understands that there is a direct connection between federal lands and access to affordable, domestic, clean natural gas. In the coming years, we will work with Sen. Salazar on policies to ensure that new technologies continue to improve our energy security and held the administration improve our nation's air quality," the IPAMS official said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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