Salazar said the goal of reducing oil imports was one the Colorado Democrat set early during his brief Senate stint, between 2005 and 2009.
Salazar said the United States was importing 60 percent of its oil at the time, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted would rise to 70 percent. He reflected on a speech he made on the Senate floor, noting that the U.S. was “heading in the wrong direction.”
“At the heart of it all, it has to do with the national security of the United States because we don’t want to be dependent on the Middle East or anybody else for having to import oil from those places. We also know that our national economic security is dependent on job creation that comes from energy. And we also know that our environmental security is very dependent on how we harness the activities of humankind to be able to deal with the realities of climate change,” Salazar said.
The route to meeting those marks has not been without difficulty for Salazar and the Obama administration.
Republicans and industry have battled the administration to expand drilling access on federal lands, both onshore and offshore. They say the drop in oil imports has occurred in spite of White House policies, with most output coming from oil-and-gas plays on state and private lands.
They also blasted Interior’s decision to impose a six-month Gulf of Mexico drilling freeze following BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, calling it an overreaction that would slow the economy. They say new regulations and Obama’s five-year drilling plan continue to hinder offshore energy production.
But Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said Salazar’s handling of the 2010 spill, which killed 11 workers and spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, “may have been his finest hour.”
Salazar quickly overhauled the Interior agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling, and set up new regulations to improve safety and discourage some of the cozy relationships between energy firms and federal officials.
“It was a tour de force. Ken showed what a leader he is,” Hayes said.
Hayes also said Salazar helped reshape the energy bidding process for production on public lands.
Hayes said until Salazar took control, oil-and-gas firms received contracts for projects on federal lands without much review. Many proposals were sited near national parks, with local interests protesting those and many others.
Under Salazar’s command, Hayes said protests for energy plans on federal lands have dropped 50 percent.
He also lauded Salazar’s efforts to fast-track solar projects on federal lands, and to get the process started for offshore wind farms. He noted no such projects existed on federal lands before the Obama administration.
Salazar praised the president’s renewable energy efforts, as generation from those sources has doubled since Obama took office.
“We are doing more for renewable energy than has been done in any time in the history of the United States of America, and for that we are very proud of President Obama’s leadership in making that happen,” Salazar said.
— This story was updated at 7:43 a.m. on March 26.