With months of speculation ended over whether Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will stay for President Obama's second term, the former Colorado senator must now decide which of many policy initiatives he wants to finish before he leaves in March.
There is no shortage of high-profile decisions Salazar could make in the coming months, ranging from a final rule governing hydraulic fracturing to the designation of national monuments on scenic lands throughout the West.
The Colorado native yesterday announced that he intends to leave the agency by the end of March to return to his family, though his exact departure date is unknown (Greenwire, Jan. 16).
Although Salazar, 57, did not discuss his next steps, speculation was rampant over whether -- and where -- he might land in the private sector, and whether he plans to re-enter politics (Greenwire, Jan. 16). His future political ambitions, if he has any, could inform the decisions he makes in the coming months.
Some observers expect Salazar to use his final months in office to burnish his conservation legacy.
He is expected to sign a record of decision greatly expanding protections for wildlife and subsistence hunting in Alaska's 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve.
Salazar unveiled the final proposal in December, promising that it would protect significant caribou herds, migratory bird habitat and sensitive coastal resources, while allowing the future construction of an oil pipeline from the Chukchi Sea, a key priority for oil and gas interests.
Bud Cribley, the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska state director, was scheduled to visit Alaska Native communities on the North Slope this month to discuss the final contours of the plan.
Also in Alaska, it's possible Salazar will oversee the release of a final conservation plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In August 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service preliminarily recommended expanding wilderness protections in the oil-rich coastal plain, a decision that the state's oil backers condemned.
While largely symbolic -- only Congress can declare wilderness, which essential forbids oil and gas development -- an affirmative recommendation on the coastal plain would be a major victory for environmentalists because it would mark the first time Interior has ruled that the area is deserving of wilderness protections.
"Over the next two months, we are hopeful that Secretary Salazar will leave a legacy that includes conservation of Alaska's wild lands," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "Both of these plans have received significant public support with nearly 1.5 million comments."
Neither of those decisions would endear Salazar to Alaska lawmakers, who have fought hard to ensure both NPR-A and ANWR are opened for drilling.
National monuments, oil shale
While both plans would be temporary -- lasting about 15 years -- Salazar may also seek permanent protections through the designation of national monuments, which could only be undone by Congress.
Such designations are the prerogative of the president, but Salazar may pressure the White House to designate a national monument in a rugged river canyon in northern New Mexico or on BLM-managed islands off the coast of Washington state, among other locales.
Such moves, perhaps more than any others, would burnish Salazar's conservation legacy in the minds of environmentalists -- at the risk of inflaming some Western Republicans.
Conservationists are also hopeful Salazar will follow through on a legal settlement requiring him to issue a revised rule governing royalty rates for oil shale, a political flashpoint in Salazar's home state.
The oil shale settlement, struck in early 2011 with a coalition of green groups, gave Interior until last May to re-evaluate a George W. Bush administration royalty rate that was set intentionally low to entice investments.
Plaintiffs thus far have been flexible about the timing of its release -- it has been under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget for several months -- but that may change in light of Salazar's departure.
"Secretary Salazar should be commended for restoring order to a flawed oil shale program," said David Abelson, an oil shale policy adviser for Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, Colo., and one of the plaintiffs. "His work, though, is unfinished, and it remains imperative that he release the revised draft commercial leasing regulations before he leaves office to remove the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the program."
Salazar has long been a skeptic of oil shale, which, unlike shale oil, has yet to be commercially developed and currently requires vast amounts of water and heat to turn into marketable crude. Salazar would be expected to take a more pro-conservation approach to royalties than any successor.
There is little doubt that Salazar will seek to advance more renewable energy projects in the Southwest and perhaps in the Atlantic Ocean before he leaves office. An announcement advancing a project to site solar panels on previously degraded lands in Arizona is expected as soon as tomorrow, and more records of decision authorizing solar plants would further establish Salazar as a pioneer in the country's expansion of clean energy.
Many of Salazar's conservation goals also depend on help from Congress.
As a senator, Salazar was credited with pressuring Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to pass a sweeping public lands package early in the 111th Congress, which included Salazar's legislation to protect the Dominguez Canyon in southwest Colorado.
It would not be surprising to see the former senator make another strong push to jump-start the passage of wilderness or parks bills that the 112th Congress failed to approve.
With new leadership at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Salazar was a member, there is renewed hope for bipartisan agreements on public lands packages.
If that happens, look for Salazar to target protections for backcountry areas his agency highlighted in a November 2011 report where designation as wilderness, conservation areas or parks carries strong local or bipartisan support.
On Capitol Hill, Salazar may also advocate strongly for lawmakers to more fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Salazar as secretary said had been "robbed" over the years. Funding for the program, which is the government's main vehicle for acquiring lands, conserving private lands and supporting urban recreation, was proposed for doubling in the Senate's version of a transportation bill, but the provision was later removed.
A big uncertainty is whether Salazar will seek to finalize a rule to require drilling firms to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing.
BLM issued a draft rule last spring that would have required disclosure, in addition to strengthening reporting standards for well integrity and management of wastewater, but it was fiercely opposed by the oil and gas industry.
Industry sources have suggested the draft rule has undergone significant changes, though details are scarce.
A coalition of oil and gas groups last September asked Interior to withdraw the proposed rule, arguing that the controversial technique that has led to an oil production boom in places like North Dakota and Texas is already adequately regulated by the states.
Environmental groups have pushed strongly for protections since even before Salazar first pledged to update BLM's rule in the fall of 2010, arguing that the protection of wildlife habitats and water supplies is at stake.
Any final rule is likely to spark intense controversy, something the secretary may want to avoid in his final months in office.