Salazar draws praise, tough decisions await

Sen. Ken Salazar’s nomination hearing for Interior secretary Thursday was so absent of controversy that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) jokingly called it a “bouquet-tossing party.”

Several other questioners on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee referred to Salazar as a good friend, praising both his head and his heart.

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Behind the praise, though, were warnings that Salazar, a Democratic senator from Colorado who does not plan to resign his seat until he wins confirmation, will face several controversial issues that could someday strain those rosy relationships he now enjoys with colleagues.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee’s ranking member, asked Salazar about one: whether he would support the reinstatement of drilling bans in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

The OCS had been protected by congressional and administration drilling bans, except for areas in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Southern California and Alaska, but the bans are no longer in effect.

Now that gas prices have tumbled as oil demand has dropped in the global economic downturn, the question of whether to open the OCS to additional drilling isn’t as hot a political issue as it was last summer. But the hearing made clear that the subject is still a point of interest for senators, who don’t necessarily hold the same opinions on the subject.

Setting a pattern that he would amiably maintain throughout the hearing, Salazar dodged Murkowski’s question, saying the incoming administration would review the issue as part of a broader energy plan.

“We need to develop our resources, but we need to do it in a thoughtful and responsible way,” Salazar said.
Salazar was also noncommittal on the issue of whether the Obama administration would maintain a Bush administration policy of allowing visitors to carry guns in national parks. Salazar described himself as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment: “I have a healthy respect for guns, and I know how to use a gun.” But he said he hadn’t reviewed the Interior Department rule, even though — as a few Republican senators noted — he had expressed support for the policy as a senator.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked Salazar for a pledge to support commercial development of oil shale. Salazar said he would not close the door on the possible development of oil shale reserves, which are located principally in his home state of Colorado.

He said that several questions needed to be answered, however, like how much water the process of heating the shale to squeeze the oil is needed, and how much energy that process consumes. In what was one of the more direct exchanges of the hearing, Salazar said that the technology to develop oil shale was still years away from being commercially viable anyway, giving the Interior Department further time to answer the questions.

Salazar also punted a question from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) concerning the use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, although he did defend the law generally. The Interior Department has listed the polar bear as threatened in part because of global warming, but the Bush administration has said the decision should not affect how emitting industries are regulated.

Salazar also agreed with the position expressed by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that a more than century old mining law needs to be updated, though he did not provide details about how it should be revised. Environmental groups want the mining law changed to apply royalties to operations and to use the revenue to clean up abandoned mines. Mining companies, however, have fought what they see as excessive royalties.