WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazars announcement that hes stepping down at the end of March leaves his successor to grapple with contentious issues including drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska and fracking for natural gas and oil on public lands.
Names mentioned as potential replacements include outgoing Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan and former Govs. Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming and Bill Ritter of Colorado. Environmental groups are pushing for Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva to get the job.
Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, said Wednesday he is leaving the Cabinet position after four years to return his home state. 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., he said.
Salazar had an eventful term as interior secretary. He responded to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest offshore spill in U.S. history, and imposed a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling permits in the wake of the disaster. Salazars department came up with new drilling rules and reorganized the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service, whose oversight of offshore drilling was toothless and discredited by sex, drugs and gifts scandals left over from the previous administration.
President Barack Obama, who has not signaled who might take over as interior secretary, praised Salazar on Wednesday. In his work to promote renewable energy projects on our public lands and increase the development of oil and gas production, Ken has ensured that the departments decisions are driven by the best science and promote the highest safety standards, Obama said in a written statement.
The six-month moratorium after BPs disaster angered some members of Congress and the oil industry, which complains its still too hard to drill. Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter said in a written statement Wednesday that its past time for him to step down.
But Salazar also has clashed with environmental groups, particularly over his backing of Shells efforts to drill for oil in Arctic waters off Alaska. Shell Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby in November called the Arctic permitting a model of how offshore permitting could and should work.
One possible replacement for Salazar, his deputy David Hayes, has been closely involved in crafting the departments offshore Arctic policy.
Secretary Salazars departure leaves behind a mixed legacy, said Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental group Oceana. She said Salazar forged ahead in renewable energy development, which includes authorization of 34 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects.
But, Savitz said, We cannot forget that during his term, Secretary Salazar also approved offshore drilling in the Arctic, which has proven to be as dangerous as we predicted.
Arctic offshore drilling will be a major issue for Salazars replacement. The Interior Department and the Coast Guard are investigating Shells multiple mishaps off Alaska, including the grounding of a drill rig this month.
His replacement also will have to tackle the emotional issue of fracking hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil. The process, in which large quantities of water, sand and chemicals are injected underground so that oil and natural gas will flow, stirs up fears of groundwater pollution. The Interior Department delayed finalizing rules to impose new controls on fracking, saying officials need to analyze 170,000 comments on the changes.