Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement that he's 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. Salazar's 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 department's decisions are driven by the best science and promote the highest safety standards," Obama said in a written statement.
The six-month moratorium after BP's disaster angered some members of Congress and the oil industry, which complains it's still too hard to drill. Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter said in a written statement Wednesday that it's "past time for him to step down."
But Salazar also has clashed with environmental groups, particularly over his backing of Shell's 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 department's offshore Arctic policy.
"Secretary Salazar's 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 Salazar's replacement. The Interior Department and the Coast Guard are investigating Shell's 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.
The new secretary also will be overseer of 500 million acres of public land and a department with 70,000 employees and responsibilities including endangered species, national parks and Native American affairs.
Gregoire, whose term as Washington's governor ended Wednesday, has long been mentioned as a potential replacement for Salazar. Gregoire is close with Obama and Indian tribes and is a big backer of alternative energy, national parks and tourism.
"The tradition is to go to somebody from the West - I'm not surprised at all that she's in the mix and I think she'd be a fine pick," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who follows presidential appointments closely. "She's been a very successful governor of an important state and has wrestled with issues involving public land in her state. It seems to me she presents a pretty strong profile."
Gregoire said Wednesday she's open to discussions about the post.
"You know, I'm not done. Retirement's not really in my vocabulary. I have not lost my energy or enthusiasm or love for service. So I'll go do something else," she said.
"So if the president of the United States calls I would have to really seriously think about serving," she said. "But I'll wait, I'll see."
The president has taken some heat in recent days for the fact his three recent Cabinet picks have all been white males. Salazar is the last remaining Latino in the Cabinet. A coalition of 238 conservation, Hispanic, recreation, animal welfare, religious, labor, youth, business and women's groups are pushing for Grijalva to replace him.
Another name mentioned as a possible replacement is John Berry, director of the federal Office of Personnel Management. He's from Maryland, not the West, but was an Interior Department official during the Clinton administration. He also would be the first openly gay member of a presidential Cabinet.
Former Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state, who just finished 36 years in the U.S. House, is also cited as potential successor to Salazar. But he ruled himself out when his name first surfaced in November.
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