Few candidates to replace Ken Salazar as Interior secretary have spent more time on resource management than Salazar's deputy, David Hayes.
Hayes has toiled behind the scenes on nearly every major Interior Department policy over the past four years -- from Arctic drilling to solar panels in the desert. He did the same during the Clinton administration, where he was counselor and deputy to Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
But while Hayes' name has been prominently floated as a potential successor to Salazar -- who plans to leave by March -- Beltway oddsmakers see him as a long shot given pressures on President Obama to diversify his Cabinet after selecting white men to lead the State, Defense and Treasury departments and the CIA.
For Interior secretary, the White House is said to be considering former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) or Office of Personnel Management Director and former Interior official John Berry, among others. A handful of other former Western Democratic governors and lawmakers are also considered potential picks.
"If they're looking for a diversity candidate, he's not it," a conservationist said of Hayes.
As a native of Rochester, N.Y., Hayes also lacks the Western pedigree that some see as important in an Interior secretary, who oversees a large swath of federal land in the West. Since 1950, only two of the 25 Interior secretaries have hailed from a state east of the Mississippi.
Hayes' supporters say he's well-prepared to take the reins of the sprawling, $12 billion department, which manages everything from offshore wind to wild horses and burros.
Hayes has the environmental chops of other potential Interior nominees, including Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and former Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), but he carries less partisan political baggage, his boosters say. And although he's not likely to be embraced by Republicans or industry groups, Hayes would be expected to win confirmation in the Senate, where he is well-known by members of the energy and environmental committees.
At Interior, Hayes has played a leading role in plans to accelerate solar development in the Southwest and offshore wind in the Atlantic, the development of a new rule governing hydraulic fracturing, negotiating the $3.4 billion Cobell trust settlement, and the department's climate change strategy and scientific integrity policy. Under President Clinton, Hayes is credited with conserving old-growth redwoods in Northern California, pushing for the restoration of California's bay-delta ecosystem, and settling long-standing American Indian water rights disputes.
"Hayes has ridden point with Secretary Salazar on many critical issues, including offshore Alaska leases, siting of renewable energy on public lands and fracking regulations that allow for responsible shale development," said Paul Bledsoe, a former Interior Department and White House aide who served during the Clinton administration. "It's hard to imagine anyone more expert in balancing the demands of resource protection, energy development and public uses of our national lands."
Described by some as a policy wonk, Hayes is known for his attention to detail and has been seen poring over stacks of binders in the Interior library. Sources say he reads many of the department's environmental impact statements, fat books that weigh the potential environmental outcomes of agency decisions.
Obama tapped Hayes to lead an interagency working group on energy permitting in the Arctic, which led to approvals of drilling projects in northwest Alaska and in the Arctic Ocean.
Hayes earlier this month said the initiative has resulted in better communication among the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. EPA and the Coast Guard over issues including oil spill response planning.
"He has brought agency people together who have never sat down with each other and talked about these issues in the past," said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Arctic Program, who worked with Hayes during the Clinton administration. "I don't agree with all the decisions that have been made by the Department of Interior on offshore drilling, but I think they have been really well vetted and really thoroughly reviewed, and I have to say that I hadn't seen that kind of work in the past."
The Obama administration's decision to allow preliminary drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas last summer was one of its most controversial. The agency recently announced a top-to-bottom review of Royal Dutch Shell PLC's 2012 drilling season, which was marred by a handful of mishaps including the grounding last month of its drillship Kulluk.
Still, Heiman said Hayes has ensured that scientists, Alaska Natives, whalers and conservationists have had a seat at the table, and that Arctic decisions are made holistically, rather than agency by agency.
"This is a complicated area with a lot of different constituencies," Heiman said. "He has immersed himself in the nuts and bolts."
Hayes has also cultivated good relationships with the White House and key lawmakers, sources said.
In recent weeks, Hayes garnered support from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican whose oil and gas constituency has long bristled over the Obama administration's energy policy (E&ENews PM, Jan. 23).
"He had a big job in front of him, he's trying to balance a lot of interests," Murkowski said last week. "I think it's fair to say he listened, he came to the state, he spent time there, and he is one that I think that could come to the job well-informed on many of the issues that are important to me."
Potential Senate roadblocks
There's little doubt that Hayes, if nominated, would encounter resistance from some Senate Republicans, who opposed the Obama administration's first-term energy policies.
For example, in early 2009, in one of his first moves, Salazar yanked 77 oil and gas leases in Utah issued in the waning months of the George W. Bush administration that he argued were too close to national parks and monuments, angering Western Republicans and drilling groups.
Hayes, whose nomination was temporarily blocked over the canceled leases, was tapped to oversee a review of the Bureau of Land Management sale, which later resulted in comprehensive leasing reforms cheered by conservationists but criticized by industry.
In the Gulf of Mexico, lawmakers still seethe over Salazar's decision in 2010 to halt deepwater drilling in the aftermath of the BP PLC oil spill.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has backed probes into whether the administration intentionally doctored a drilling report to provide political cover for the moratorium and whether the agency's acting inspector general conducted an independent review of the issue.
On these issues and others, including hydraulic fracturing, Hayes would likely receive sharp scrutiny over his decisionmaking role.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she is reserving judgment over Hayes until an official nominee is announced.
"He's always been very polite, very fair, very helpful," said Landrieu, an outspoken critic of the department's response to the Gulf spill. "But those issues are so important to our state, and the Interior Department has really made such serious errors in the aftermath of BP that I would have to give that some thought."
Landrieu said her preferred candidate for Interior secretary is former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who has placed holds on past Interior nominees over issues ranging from the agency's wolf policy to officials' past affiliation with certain environmental groups, said he had yet to consider Hayes as secretary.
"I just have some concerns [about] some of the things that have been coming out of the department that have made it harder for us to use American energy supplies," he said. "I've been looking at the Department of Interior as well as the EPA as well as Department of Energy, as I think all three are going to be opening, and what we really need in those positions."
'Hell of a lawyer'
Hayes, who has a law degree from Stanford University and was a consulting professor at the school's Woods Institute for the Environment, has previously served as a senior fellow for the World Wildlife Fund and was the vice chairman of the board for American Rivers, whose former CEO, Rebecca Wodder, Barrasso once opposed for her stance on hydraulic fracturing. Wodder at the time had been nominated as Interior assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, but her nomination was later withdrawn amid Republican opposition.
While Hayes is generally respected by environmentalists, some liberal groups have backed Grijalva for secretary. The Arizona Democrat was a front-runner for Interior secretary in 2008 before being passed up for the more moderate Salazar. He would be difficult to confirm in the Senate, where his positions on hardrock mining reform are at odds with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
"I certainly think David Hayes is capable," said Bill Snape, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups backing Grijalva. "The major question with David Hayes ... is whether he would really be able to chart a new course."
Snape called Hayes -- who was a partner for eight years at the law firm Latham & Watkins before joining the Obama administration -- a "hell of a lawyer" who's fluent in Interior issues, but said it's unclear whether Hayes would part from Salazar's positions on Arctic drilling, hydraulic fracturing on public lands or endangered species issues.
Other environmentalists have expressed support for Hayes but said they aren't backing any particular candidate.