Salazar may wind up in middle between Obama energy, environmental goals

Of President-elect Barack H. Obama's energy and environmental nominees, Interior Secretary-designate Ken Salazar is most likely to be caught between competing priorities.

US President-elect Barack H. Obama quickly moved to fill the major energy and environment positions in his new administration in mid-December. Congress apparently is ready to quickly confirm his choices.

The US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee scheduled hearings on Jan. 13 on Obama's nomination of Steven Chu as US Energy secretary and on Jan. 15 of the president-elect's nomination of US Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) as US Interior secretary. Obama also has selected former US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner for a new post as White House coordinator for energy, environment and climate change.

While hearing dates have not been officially announced on the nominations of Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator and Nancy Sutley to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said on Dec. 15 that she also plans to move ahead with the confirmation process as quickly as possible.

With US Agriculture secretary nominee Tom Vilsak, the group comprises what Obama intends to be a coordinated effort to reduce US reliance on imported crude oil, lower carbon emissions and other environmental impacts, and develop alternative and renewable energy technologies and resources. Increased access to domestic oil and gas resources has become a secondary consideration, particularly since prices have fallen dramatically.

Natural gas reliance

Salazar ultimately could wind up in the middle. The Democrats' long-term energy and environment strategy relies heavily on natural gas as a bridge fuel while alternative and renewable technologies are developed. Gas supplies currently are ample and prices are low. But several producers are scaling back their exploration and production in response. Environmental organizations are mounting strong campaigns against hydraulic fracturing to produce gas from onshore shale formations, the most prolific new domestic source. The situation could change.

The senator also would take charge of what Obama 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 Dec. 17 Chicago press conference announcing Salazar and Vilsak's nominations.

"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 at the press conference. 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 chairmen of two key congressional energy committees applauded Salazar's selection. 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.

'Knows the substance'

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said that he would be sorry to lose Salazar as a committee member 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.

The presidents of two leading independent oil and gas producers' associations also applauded Salazar's selection. "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," said Barry Russell of the Independent Petroleum Association of America in Washington.

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.

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.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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