Sec. Salazar vows to close the public lands ‘candy store’

Former Sen. Ken Salazar would have made a strong candidate for governor of Colorado, but his decision to continue as Secretary of the Interior is the more commendable choice. It may also prove to be the best choice for Colorado and other Western states.

If Salazar had chosen to run for governor, his resignation from the Department of Interior could have delayed, or even sidetracked, investigations he has launched and reforms he is putting in place to rein in an out-of-control oil and gas industry.

The difference between the current administration and the previous one, Salazar told reporters, “is that in the prior administration the oil and gas industry ... were the kings of the world. Whatever they wanted to happen ... happened. The department was essentially a handmaiden of the industry.”

Nothing illustrates this point more effectively than the sex and drug scandals at the Denver office of the Materials Management Service, revealed late in the Bush administration. “Our agenda for reform will reach every part of this department,” Salazar told MMS employees. “But it will also send a loud and clear signal to the special interests outside of this department who have become accustomed to the ‘anything goes’ attitude in Washington for the last eight years. The anything goes era is over.”

Salazar said he intends to shut down the Bush administration’s public-lands “candy store” that allowed energy companies to “walk in and take whatever they wanted.”

Salazar’s reforms would increase inspections of proposed lease lands to determine such potential concerns as “air quality, watersheds, wilderness, wildlife and nearby land uses.” Reviews would be conducted by interdisciplinary teams of such qualified experts as wildlife biologists, archaeologists, hydrologists, air quality specialists and others.

Other key reforms include increasing opportunities for public comment, emphasizing drilling in already developed areas and identifying best management practices to mitigate environmental impacts on new leased lands.

Under the new policies, “categorical exclusions” would no longer be used, as they were under the Bush administration, to circumvent human health and safety regulations, gain access to protected species habitat or threaten historic or cultural resources.

According to Secretary Salazar, the reforms will “help bring clarity, consistency and public engagement to the onshore oil and gas leasing, while balancing the many resource values that the Bureau of Land Management is entrusted with protecting on behalf of the American people.”

Salazar also plans to appoint a new energy reform team to help “improve the department’s internal operations to better manage publicly owned energy resources and the revenue they produce.”

BLM Director Bob Abbey says a more careful leasing policy can reduce legal challenges and protests. “It will also support the BLM’s multiple-use mission, which requires management of the public lands to provide opportunities for activities such as recreation, conservation and energy development — both conventional and renewable,” he said.

The oil and gas companies object to the new requirements. But, despite some grousing about bureaucrats dictating where energy development should occur when “the market based system has worked well for decades,” the oil and gas companies in Colorado have agreed to cooperate with Salazar’s plan.

“The natural gas industry will continue to work with the Department of the Interior to ensure that energy resources are developed responsibly on federal lands” the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said.

Conservationists cautiously applauded the reforms for restoring balance to energy development. “The reform proposals are broad concepts,” said a spokesperson for the National Resource Defense Council, “and many details need to be filled in before we know what their impact will be. NRDC will be watching closely ... to hold the secretary to his word.”

While this agreement to cooperate does not ensure a truce among the competing interests on public lands, it balances wildlife habitat protection, public health considerations, recreation, and energy development, while providing regulatory certainty for the oil and gas industry.

Salazar said at his confirmation hearing last January that he wanted to “clean up the mess” left by the previous administration.

His decision to remain in Washington despite an attractive offer to run — probably successfully — for governor of Colorado shows he means it.


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