By Ben Geman - 01/16/13 10:05 AM EST
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who overhauled the federal government’s troubled offshore drilling agency after the BP oil spill and locked horns with Republicans over energy policy, said Wednesday that he plans to step down by the end of March.
Salazar, a former Colorado senator, did not announce his future plans.
He touted his agency’s work on energy policy, and with Indian tribes on water rights, economic development and other areas.
“I have had the privilege of reforming the Department of the Interior to help lead the United States in securing a new energy frontier, ushering in a conservation agenda for the 21st century, and honoring our word to the nation’s first Americans,” Salazar said.
President Obama, in a statement, praised Salazar’s “hard work and leadership on behalf of the American people” and said he “helped usher in a new era of conservation for our nation’s land, water, and wildlife.”
“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.
Salazar’s tenure has included a heavy focus on developing solar power, wind and other green energy sources on federal lands. He battled frequently with Republicans who say the Interior Department should allow faster oil-and-gas development on federal lands and make more offshore areas available for drilling.
The Interior chief's departure is part of a wider turnover of President Obama's energy and environment team.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson announced in December that she plans to depart sometime after Obama's State of the Union Address, which will be delivered Feb. 12.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu is widely expected to leave as well, although he has not announced any plans.
Salazar, whose ever-present 10-gallon hat and bolo tie showed his Western roots, has been a colorful and sometimes combative chief of the agency that oversees conservation, recreation and oil-and-gas drilling on vast swaths of federal land.
In early 2010, when announcing tougher environmental reviews of drilling projects, he said oil companies were “kings of the world” under the George W. Bush administration and that those days were over.
During the 2010 BP spill crisis, Salazar said the government would keep a “boot on the neck” of the oil giant.
But Salazar, who also frequently touts his support for oil-and-gas development, has drawn criticism from some environmentalists.
Activists have attacked leasing for coal projects in Wyoming, and environmentalists were dismayed that Interior last year allowed Royal Dutch Shell to begin preliminary drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast.
The future of drilling in Arctic waters will be a major question facing whomever replaces Salazar.
More broadly, his plans to step down could usher in Capitol Hill conflict over any nominee to replace him.
The array of potential nominees to succeed Salazar floated by Interior observers and published reports include former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), outgoing Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), former Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), recently departed Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) and several others.
Others mentioned as potential replacements include Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D).
A liberal coalition of more than 200 environmental, Hispanic, animal welfare and other groups has urged Obama to tap Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), which would represent a move to the left for the department.
Interior’s energy policies have drawn frequent GOP attacks.
Many Republicans criticized the months-long freeze on deepwater drilling imposed after BP’s Macondo well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, calling it an overreach that was harmful to the Gulf region.
Salazar, in the wake of the spill, overhauled the long-troubled Minerals Management Service that regulated offshore drilling, replacing it with what are now two separate agencies: the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Interior has toughened offshore drilling safety rules, and plans to propose further requirements regarding subsea blowout preventers.
Onshore, Interior is planning to finalize rules to govern the oil-and-gas development method called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” on public lands.
The rules are under fire from Republicans and oil industry groups that say state-level rules are protective enough.
Salazar has also worked to boost development of solar power and other renewable energy sources on public lands.
The administration has provided the green light for construction of nearly three-dozen renewable energy projects that could provide 10,400 megawatts of energy, which is enough to power roughly 3.4 million homes, Interior said in late 2012.
He has sought to promote the fledgling offshore wind industry as well, although there are not yet any operating commercial-scale projects in federal waters.
“Today, the largest solar energy projects in the world are under construction on America’s public lands in the West, and we’ve issued the first leases for offshore wind in the Atlantic,” Salazar said. “I am proud of the renewable energy revolution that we have launched.”
Salazar has also established seven new national parks and 10 new wildlife refuges, according to The Denver Post, which first reported his plan to step down.
But some Interior initiatives have stumbled.
For instance, in 2011, Salazar, facing congressional criticism and roadblocks, backed off his “wild lands” policy, aimed at conserving areas that have not been given a formal wilderness designation by Congress.
The looming departure of Salazar, with Hispanic roots, could also increase attention on questions of diversity in President Obama’s Cabinet.
With Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EPA’s Jackson departing, Obama has faced criticism of over the gender and ethnic makeup of his second-term team.
Obama’s nominees for his second-term heads of the State, Defense and Treasury departments have been white men, but the president cautioned Monday not to judge his second-term Cabinet’s diversity until he has made all his choices.
Salazar, in his prepared statement, said he is “forever grateful” to Obama and praised Interior’s employees.
“I thank the more than 70,000 employees at the Department for their dedication to our mission as custodians of America’s natural and cultural resources. I look forward to helping my successor in a seamless transition in the months ahead.”
This story was last updated at 10:47 a.m.