Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today said he will leave President Obama's Cabinet by the end of March to return to his family in Colorado, leaving a deep imprint on the management of the nation's lands and waters.
In his four years as secretary, Salazar, 57, overhauled Interior's management of offshore drilling, led a sweeping expansion of renewable energy and strengthened the government's relationship with American Indians.
His departure leaves another hole in Obama's Cabinet and could signal major changes at an agency that oversees energy development, conservation and wildlife protections on a fifth of the nation's land and the outer continental shelf.
The former Democratic senator from Colorado said he looks forward to returning to his family after eight years in Washington, D.C.
"Colorado is and will always be my home," Salazar said. "I am forever grateful to President Obama for his friendship in the U.S. Senate and the opportunity he gave me to serve as a member of his Cabinet during this historic presidency."
Shortly after his confirmation in 2009, Salazar pledged to restore balance to the development of oil and gas on public lands, which he warned had become a "candy store" for industry under the previous administration.
One of his first moves was to withdraw scores of oil and gas leases in Utah issued in the waning months of the George W. Bush administration that he felt were too close to national parks and monuments. While praised by conservationists, the move drew a sharp rebuke from industry and Capitol Hill Republicans and delayed the confirmation of his deputy secretary, David Hayes.
In early 2010, Salazar introduced a sweeping set of leasing reforms designed to reduce protests and litigation that had ensnarled the Bureau of Land Management's oil and gas program.
That same year, Salazar oversaw an unprecedented overhaul of the former Minerals Management Service after the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 men and spilled nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the nation's worst environmental disaster.
"We have undertaken the most aggressive oil and gas safety and reform agenda in U.S. history, raising the bar on offshore drilling safety, practices and technology, and ensuring that energy development is done in the right way and in the right places," Salazar said. "Today, drilling activity in the Gulf is surpassing levels seen before the spill, and our nation is on a promising path to energy independence."
Salazar also led a major expansion of renewable energy on public lands and waters, a cornerstone of the Obama administration's pledge to reduce emissions of global warming gases.
Since 2009, the agency has authorized nearly three dozen solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands that will produce 10,400 megawatts, while establishing more than a dozen solar zones for expedited development in six Southwest states. Similar efforts have taken place in the Atlantic Ocean, where a new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has initiated first-ever offshore wind lease sales up and down the East Coast.
Salazar also ushered in a new model for conservation that focused on partnerships with farmers, ranchers and forest owners, securing easements on private lands in northern Montana, on the prairie grasslands of Kansas and at the headwaters of the Everglades.
Since 2009, Interior has established 10 new national wildlife refuges and seven national parks.
"We are partnering with landowners, farmers and ranchers to preserve their way of life and the irreplaceable land and wildlife that together we cherish," Salazar said.
Obama this morning praised Salazar for balancing renewable and conventional energy development, ensuring decisions were driven by science, and promoting the highest safety standards.
"Ken has helped usher in a new era of conservation for our nation's land, water and wildlife," Obama said in a statement. "Ken has played an integral role in my administration's successful efforts to expand responsible development of our nation's domestic energy resources."
Obama also credited Salazar for making "historic strides" in strengthening the government's relationship with Indian country, having overseen the resolution of the massive Cobell v. Salazar lawsuit and a handful of Indian water rights settlements.
Salazar's Democratic colleagues called him a responsible steward of the nation's natural resources.
"Growing up in his family's ranch in Colorado, Ken always understood and respected the importance of protecting our country's natural wealth," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "He approached his job as a man of the land because that is exactly what he is, with deep roots to the Mountain West."
Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) each issued separate statements in support of Salazar's record as secretary.
But some criticized Salazar for promoting renewable energy and conservation at the expense of conventional energy development.
Oil and gas production has surged over the past several years, but the majority of that growth has taken place on private and state lands, not those managed by Interior.
One former Bush administration official said industry would remember Salazar for the moratorium he placed on deepwater drilling for nearly half a year after the Deepwater Horizon spill and for the editing of an agency report that erroneously suggested the drilling halt was supported by independent scientists.
"His legacy was very much overshadowed by the spill, the moratoria and the politicizing of that issue," the former official said. "His response to it was less than stellar."
Jim Noe, senior vice president of the oil and gas firm Hercules Offshore, said he wished Salazar well but thought the administration's first-term energy regime lacked balance.
"While the Interior Department seemed to pursue long-shot energy alternatives, it created official and de facto moratoriums that hurt the industry, thousands of workers, and the small businesses and communities that depend upon them," Noe said. "The legacy of the Interior five-year [leasing] plan has charted a course for the fewest lease sales in a generation."
Salazar was criticized by industry for excluding the Atlantic and Pacific oceans from future oil and gas development.
But few Cabinet secretaries have to answer to such a wide variety of stakeholders as the Interior secretary, a job that Salazar has said is the best in the federal government.
Paul Bledsoe, a former Interior aide under the Clinton administration who is now an independent consultant, credited Salazar for creating a more robust safety regime in the Gulf, where leases and permitting have returned to pre-spill levels and production is expected to continue to rise.
"In particular, they created a more rigorous offshore safety regime in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, under almost impossible political circumstances," said Bledsoe, who praised similar efforts to strike balances on public lands, where Salazar has proposed new safeguards for hydraulic fracturing. "Overall, they have been very careful to strike a thoughtful balance of public land uses including energy development while protecting wildlife and resources."
Dave Alberswerth, a former Interior official under the Clinton administration, said Salazar's onshore leasing reforms recognized that oil and gas leasing was not supposed to be the primary use of public lands.
"That, for me, was singularly important," he said.
It's unclear when the Obama administration will name a successor, and officials have been mum on who may be in the running.
While former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) has garnered attention as a possible replacement for retiring U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, multiple sources said Gregoire would likely also be in the running for the Interior post, given her state's abundance of natural resources.
Another top prospect is Interior Deputy Secretary Hayes, who also served under the Clinton administration and has led an interagency effort to permit Alaskan energy projects. As a native of New York state, Hayes if picked would buck a long history of plucking Interior secretaries from the West.
Other conventional selections include former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) and former Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.).
But many have speculated that Obama will seek to bolster his Cabinet's diversity with his Interior and EPA picks, following the selection of white males to lead the State and Defense departments and the CIA. With Salazar's departure, the president's Cabinet currently has no Hispanics.
Some have suggested the president might select former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) or Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who was in the running for secretary in 2008 but was deemed too liberal on certain issues.
A Grijalva nomination would draw strong support among conservationists but would likely face a tough confirmation in the Senate.
"Will the president try to make the Interior Department an agency for all the people, or merely a lobbying stop for select industrial interests like oil and gas?" asked Bill Snape, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which has lobbied for a Grijalva nomination. "That question will be answered by who he picks to lead this department, with jurisdiction over public lands, wildlife, water resources and natural values."
One dark-horse candidate is John Berry, a former Interior assistant secretary for policy, management and budget who now serves at the Office of Personnel Management.
If picked, Berry would be the only openly gay member of the president's Cabinet.