Environmentalists Wary of Obama’s Interior Pick

Published on
by
the New York Times

Environmentalists Wary of Obama’s Interior Pick

by
John M. Broder

President-elect Barack Obama with choice to lead the Interior Department, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado during a news conference in Chicago on Wednesday. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead the Interior Department, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, will inherit an agency demoralized by years of scandal, political interference and mismanagement.

He must deal with the sharp tension between those who seek to exploit public lands for energy, minerals and recreation and those who want to preserve the lands. He will be expected to restore scientific integrity to a department where it has repeatedly been compromised. He will be responsible for ending the department's coziness with the industries it regulates. And he will have to work hard to overcome skepticism among many environmentalists about his views on resource and wildlife issues.

One senior Interior Department executive described the job Mr. Salazar has been chosen for as "the booby prize of the Cabinet."

As Mr. Obama introduced Mr. Salazar and Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor tapped to be secretary of agriculture, at a press conference Wednesday in Chicago, he said their responsibility would be to balance the protection of farms and public lands against the need to find new sources of energy.

"It's time for a new kind of leadership in Washington that's committed to using our lands in a responsible way to benefit all our families," Mr. Obama said. "That means ensuring that even as we are promoting development where it makes sense, we are also fulfilling our obligation to protect our national treasures."

Mr. Salazar, wearing his customary ten-gallon hat and string tie, said that his job entails helping the nation address climate change through a "moon shot" on energy independence. But that would include not just the development of "green" energy sources like wind power, but also the continued domestic development of coal, oil and natural gas, fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gases when they are burned.

Environmental advocates offered mixed reviews of Mr. Salazar, 53, a first-term Democratic senator who served as head of Colorado's natural resources department and as the state's attorney general. Mr. Salazar was not the first choice of environmentalists, who openly pushed the appointment of Representative Raul Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, who has a strong record as a conservationist.

Oil and mining interests praised Mr. Salazar's performance as a state official and as a senator, saying that he was not doctrinaire about the use of public lands. "Nothing in his record suggests he's an ideologue," said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. "Here's a man who understands the issues, is open-minded and can see at least two sides of an issue."

Mr. Popovich noted approvingly that Mr. Salazar had tried to engineer a deal in the Senate allowing mining companies and others to reclaim abandoned mines without fear of lawsuits. (The legislation is pending.) He has also supported robust research on technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants, something the coal industry favors.

He also backed a compromise that would let oil companies drill for natural gas in limited parts of the Roan Plateau in northwestern Colorado, a plan that most environmental advocates opposed.

Mr. Salazar is a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up on a ranch near the New Mexico border. He has been a farmer, lawyer and small-business man as well as a public servant.

Pam Kiely, program director at Environment Colorado, said Mr. Salazar had been a champion of wilderness protection and of strong water quality laws, and had raised questions about the environmental costs of oil shale development, a subject of great controversy in the Mountain West. She said he had not spoken out forcefully against oil and gas development in millions of acres of national forests and roadless areas.

"We hope he continues to play a role in insuring that, as we develop our mineral rights in these incredibly sensitive areas, we require industry to put in place safeguards that protect our health, environment, water and air quality," Ms. Kiely said.

Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said in a statement that Mr. Salazar understood that energy security can be achieved only by making use of all domestic energy sources, including those found on and under public lands.

"We are pleased that the president-elect has chosen someone who understands that there is a direct connection between federal lands and access to affordable, clean natural gas," Mr. Smith said.

While industry officials praised his moderation, Mr. Salazar drew harsh criticism from some environmentalists.

"He is a right-of-center Democrat who often favors industry and big agriculture in battles over global warming, fuel efficiency and endangered species," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of Center for Biological Diversity, which tracks endangered species and habitat issues. "He is very unlikely to bring significant change to the scandal-plagued Department of Interior. It's a very disappointing choice for a presidency which promised visionary change."

Daniel R. Patterson, a former Interior official who is now southwest regional director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group, said that Mr. Salazar has justifiably become the most controversial of Mr. Obama's cabinet appointees.

"Salazar has a disturbingly weak conservation record, particularly on energy development, global warming, endangered wildlife and protecting scientific integrity," said Mr. Patterson, who was elected last month to the Arizona House of Representatives from Tucson and who supports fellow Arizonan Mr. Grijalva for the Interior job. "It's no surprise oil and gas, mining, agribusiness and other polluting industries that have dominated Interior are supporting rancher Salazar - he's their friend."

Even as Mr. Salazar navigates the department's tricky political cross-currents, he must also deal with significant internal management challenges. Members of Congress and outside groups are calling for review of dozens of decisions made under the Bush administration on endangered species and oil and gas leasing. The senior management ranks of the department have been depleted by departures of demoralized career employees.

And the agency's computer systems are badly in need of repair, after millions of dollars have been spent on systems that have not worked, according to several internal reports.

 

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