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Salazar to revisit recent Interior Department actions

The department's new chief will review many of the energy and environmental decisions made in the waning days of the Bush administration.

January 28, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday that he was reconsidering a series of controversial energy and environmental decisions handed down in the waning days of the Bush administration, including a move to open federal land near national parks to oil and natural gas drilling.

Opening parts of the Mountain West to oil shale development -- a sensitive issue because of the huge quantities of water required to extract oil from the rock -- will also be reviewed, he said in his first formal news interview since wining Senate confirmation last week.

"I'm very concerned about a number of the midnight actions that were taken by the Bush administration," Salazar said. "We barely have moved in, but we already know enough to know there are many issues we need to revisit."

In addition to oil and gas leases near national parks and the oil shale issue, Salazar said the list of decisions to be reviewed included starting the process for resumption of oil exploration in coastal areas and several rulings on the Endangered Species Act.

He suggested he would like to reinstate a rule that requires federal agencies to consult with scientists before approving projects that could affect threatened plants and animals -- and leave open the possibility that the department would consider the effects of global warming on species habitat, which Bush ruled out.

Almost all the Bush decisions were strongly opposed by environmental groups, many of which supported Barack Obama in last year's presidential election. But reversing some of these decisions will be easier than others, both legally and politically.

For example, Salazar could overrule Bush and maintain endangered species protection for the gray wolf essentially on his own authority, without going through any legal process or consulting with Congress. By contrast, rewriting the oil shale regulations approved by the previous administration could take months or even years under the department's formal rule-making procedures.

Industry lobbyists warned that reversing some of the Bush decisions would slow domestic energy development and put Salazar at odds with his, and Obama's, energy independence goals.

"It would really throw a wrench into the way things are going toward getting the country off our so-called addiction to foreign oil," said Michael Olsen, a former Interior official under Bush who now lobbies for energy interests at Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington.

Environmentalists urged swift action. "Salazar has a free hand" to kill the drilling leases near national parks in Utah, said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, which has sued to block the leases and several of Bush's other controversial decisions. "The secretary has an opportunity here to set a new direction."

Salazar joined eight other administration officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu and special climate-change advisor Carol Browner, for a lunch meeting Tuesday to discuss Obama's initiatives on energy independence and global warming. In the interview, Salazar said the Interior Department would play an integral part in that effort.

A centrist former senator from Colorado, Salazar takes over a department weakened by scandals involving sex, drugs and improper political influence stretching back several years.

Government auditors have detailed how an Interior staff member manipulated endangered species decisions to advance political agendas. They painted a sordid picture of cocaine, sex and oil royalty graft in the department's Minerals Management Service.

In his Senate confirmation hearing, Salazar pledged to clean up the department. On Monday, he outlined new ethics standards in a memo to Interior Department staff.

He said Tuesday that he would travel to Denver this week to address the Minerals Management staff, and he said he would set "the highest expectations for integrity and ethics, from secretary down to each of the agencies."

He stressed the importance of science in agency decision-making, particularly in regard to endangered species. Late last year, the Bush administration said federal agencies would not be compelled to consult biologists about whether government projects such as new roads or dams would harm endangered wildlife or plants.

Salazar said he would reconsider that rule and would work to enhance Endangered Species Act protections for streams and habitat. "At the end of the day, it should be the scientific foundation that drives the decisions," he said.

Calling climate change "one of the signature issues of our time," he also said he was revisiting a Bush administration decision to exclude global warming considerations when acting to protect endangered species such as the polar bear, which is declining in part because of the shrinking polar ice.

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jtankersley@tribune.com

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