Salazar stepping down at Interior

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday that he will leave his post at the end of March, ending a contentious four-year tenure during which the agency drew criticism from environmentalists and industry for its middle-of-the road energy and environmental policies.

A former Colorado attorney general and senator, Salazar used the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 to undertake a comprehensive overhaul of the Minerals and Management Service, the oft-criticized agency tasked with developing offshore energy resources. He also imposed a moratorium on drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf during the cleanup.

In recent decades, the Interior Department has been run by a Western politician, since most federal lands are in the West. Among the names mentioned as a possible successor are former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, former senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, as well as the current deputy secretary, David Hayes, who is not a Westerner.

Industry and its congressional supporters had little good to say about Salazar, whom they saw as part of an Obama administration effort to thwart oil and gas development. He angered the oil industry in early 2010 when he said in a teleconference that fossil fuel interests had treated public lands as if they were a “candy store,” where they could “walk in and take whatever they wanted.”

In a statement, President Barack Obama praised Salazar for bringing “a new era of conservation for our nation’s land, water and wildlife” and said he “played an integral role in my administration’s successful efforts to expand responsible development of our nation’s domestic energy resources.”

Jim Noe, head of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, said: “While the Interior Department seemed to pursue long-shot energy alternatives, it created official and de facto moratoriums that hurt the industry, thousands of workers, and the small businesses and communities that depend upon them.”

Obama, as his second term starts on Monday, is reshaping his Cabinet. He has named nominees in recent weeks to take over the departments of State and Defense, and the CIA. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development said that Secretary Shaun Donovan would stay on for Obama’s second term.

Salazar, in a statement, did not reveal his plans, but said: “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.”

Environmentalists praised Salazar’s reorganization of the Minerals and Management Service for ending conflicts-of-interest and tightening oversight. They also welcomed efforts to protect public lands from oil and gas drilling, to develop renewable energy on federal acreage and to extend a moratorium on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon.

But environmentalists have also harshly criticized the department for its willingness to let Shell Oil drill in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska, an effort that in the last few months has run into problems. Salazar recently ordered a high-level, expedited review of Shell’s mishaps before it resumes drilling later this year.

The review, scheduled to be completed in the next 60 days, could prompt more regulatory examination of Shell Alaska’s operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the most promising and controversial of America’s new oil frontiers.