On December 17, President-elect Barack Obama nominated U.S. Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) to be the Secretary of the Interior. Senator Salazar, along with the energy and environmental policy team announced previously by the President-elect (see Sutherland’s Legal Alert dated December 16, "Obama Announces Energy Team"), will help shape the Obama Administration’s policy with regard to the use of federal lands. If confirmed by the Senate, Senator Salazar will be responsible for managing more than 500 million acres of surface land, or about one-fifth of the United States, as well as about 1.76 billion acres of land on the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”). These lands together hold more than 68% of the nation’s oil and natural gas reserves, making the Department of the Interior (“Interior”) a critical agency with respect to domestic energy production. Based on his remarks during the press conference, Senator Salazar clearly expects Interior to have a major role in achieving the President-elect’s goal of U.S. energy independence.  

Interior’s role will not, however, be limited to administering the federal oil and natural gas leasing program. Given President-elect Obama’s commitment to the development of renewable energy, Senator Salazar can be expected to further promote the Minerals Management Service’s (“MMS”) Alternative Energy and Alternate Use Program as well as onshore renewable energy projects. Moreover, because the President-elect has stressed the importance of environmental protection and addressing climate change, it is likely that Senator Salazar also will devote a significant portion of his efforts to land and wildlife conservation and the protection of the nation’s water resources.  

Senator Salazar is generally viewed as more moderate than several of the other individuals named to the President-elect’s energy and environmental team. For example, Senator Salazar was a member of the so-called “Gang of 20,” a bipartisan group of Senators who supported an energy proposal earlier this year promoting both expanded OCS access for drilling and the development of alternative energy sources. In the end, however, expanded access was realized through the lapse of the long-standing congressional OCS moratoria. President-elect Obama and Senator Salazar almost certainly will reevaluate the OCS access issue in 2009. With respect to the controversial oil shale leasing program, Senator Salazar recently has indicated that he would support legislation to overturn the Bureau of Land Management’s final oil shale leasing rule. These positions are likely to be of both comfort and concern to environmentalists and industry alike. Senator Salazar does have a reputation of bringing disparate view points together to find common ground.  

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Senator Salazar is restoring public and congressional confidence in Interior’s ability to properly manage its personnel and federal revenues. Several high profile scandals have tarnished the department’s reputation. Much of the recent negative attention was focused on improper conduct surrounding the MMS royalty-in-kind program, where many employees were found to have accepted financial benefits from oil and gas companies. In his remarks, President-elect Obama emphasized that Interior must be reformed if it is to serve the needs of the American public.  

Senator Salazar is a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he has focused many of his efforts on exploring ways to create a clean and renewable energy economy. Before being elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2004, Senator Salazar served as the Attorney General of Colorado and as chief legal counsel and executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.