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Ken Salazar's Legacy

Robert B. Semple Jr.
New York Times, January 17, 2013

The Obama administration will soon lose three of its most public-spirited and progressive players on environmental policy. Lisa Jackson made great strides on climate and clean air issues as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jane Lubchenco worked tirelessly and creatively to resist the decline in threatened fish populations as boss of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both announced their wish to return to private life last month. The latest departure is Ken Salazar, who said Wednesday that he will leave his post as interior secretary in a few weeks.

President Obama thus has three critically important environmental appointments ahead of him -- four, actually, when you count the fact that he has not had a vigorous advocate on environmental, energy and climate issues inside the White House since Carol Browner left her post as "energy czar" in early 2011. Who he chooses to fill these posts will tell us much about how he plans to tackle several important issues -- climate change, for one -- that he largely ignored after the 2010 midterm election brought Tea Party Republicans to power.

Mr. Salazar made many important contributions. Mr. Obama told him to design a balanced energy strategy on the public lands administered by his department, and for the most part he did. He took a far more measured approach to oil and gas exploration than the "drill now, drill everywhere" people around George W. Bush. He orchestrated a major overhaul of safety standards for drilling, and remade his department's regulatory machinery, in the wake of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He initiated new standards for hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas fields on public lands. And he moved cautiously on oil drilling in the Arctic. But his biggest contribution to a sensible long-term energy strategy is one whose fruits will not be visible for years, and one for which he has not been widely recognized: a plan setting aside hundreds of thousands of acres of Western lands for the future development of solar and wind power. Painstakingly negotiated with multiple stakeholders, including states, industry and the environmental community, the plan provides a roadmap for future development aimed at maximizing clean energy sources without harming the environment, particularly endangered species and other wildlife.

There is plenty of unfinished business. Mr. Salazar did not, as we had hoped, rewrite several Bush-era resource management plans covering millions of other federally-owned acres in the Rocky Mountain West, particularly in Utah, that heavily favor commercial development over preservation. His successor should remedy that. In addition, the new secretary must press forward on Mr. Salazar's plans to regulate hydraulic fracturing on public lands and move with utmost caution before granting Shell a final permit to drill in Arctic waters. Given the recent rash of vaudevillian mishaps involving its drill ships and rescue vessels, it's clear the company cannot exploit the area's riches without risking environmental catastrophe.

While he's at it, the new secretary should use the considerable powers of the office to persuade Mr. Obama to set aside more protected national monuments under the Antiquities Act, a power usefully invoked by many previous presidents, most prominently Bill Clinton. Mr. Salazar never quite got around to that, but then again he had a very full agenda, much of which he completed.

Related Pages:
Salazar Activates First Solar Power Project on U.S. Land by Justin Doom, Bloomberg Businessweek, May 7, 2012

Robert B. Semple Jr.
Ken Salazar's Legacy
New York Times, January 17, 2013

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