Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar’s resignation doesn’t just leave another open spot in President Obama’s Cabinet.
The departure of the former senator from Colorado could have far-reaching effects on the administration’s energy and environmental policies in a second term — particularly oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
Mr. Salazar, who announced Wednesday that he would step down in March and return home to spend more time with family, publicly has championed increased domestic fuel production. But since he has been secretary, drilling on government land has decreased.
The oil and gas industry, often at odds with Mr. Salazar, now awaits his replacement and the clues it may offer to Mr. Obama’s future energy policy. With Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson also on the way out, the leadership team that will craft that policy will look much different in a second term.
Leaders in the oil and gas sector are optimistic that the revamped team will push to open vast reserves of oil and gas beneath federal lands to drilling, continuing the nation on its path toward freedom from foreign fuel suppliers.
“I can’t tell you who the new secretary will be, but we look forward to working with his successor as we address fundamental policy questions,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute. “What will our future be? Will we get it right? Will we indeed take advantage of this historic game-changing opportunity [in American energy]? It’s important to look at the federal lands question in that context.”
Mr. Salazar is the latest in a string of Cabinet members to announce their departures. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta also are set to leave.
The president praised Mr. Salazar on Wednesday, saying the former senator helped “usher in a new era of conservation.”
“Ken has played an integral role in my administration’s successful efforts to expand responsible development of our nation’s domestic energy resources in his work to promote renewable energy projects on our public lands and increase the development of oil and gas production,” the president said.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Salazar often tout the fact that oil and gas production in the U.S. has increased over the past four years. The increases, however, have come almost entirely on private and state lands. Oil and gas companies, as well as trade groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, contend that the administration has made it more difficult to secure permits to drill on federal land.
Although fossil fuel production on government land is down, Mr. Salazar has been a key cog in the White House’s efforts to advance and financially prop up renewable energy projects.
During Mr. Salazar’s tenure, the Interior Department has authorized 34 solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands, according to department figures.
Mr. Salazar also established the nation’s first offshore wind power leasing program.
“Today, the largest solar energy projects in the world are under construction on America’s public lands in the West,” Mr. Salazar said in a statement Wednesday. “I am proud of the renewable energy revolution that we have launched.”
He also played a significant role in the government response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and implemented much stricter rules on such projects.
“We have undertaken the most aggressive oil and gas safety and reform agenda in U.S. history, raising the bar on offshore drilling safety, practices and technology,” he said.
Mr. Salazar and Ms. Jackson may not be the last members of the president’s energy and environment team to head for the exit. There has been widespread speculation that Energy Secretary Steven Chu will announce his resignation soon.
In what could be an indication of his departure, one of his top advisers, Richard Kauffman, recently left his post at the Energy Department to serve as New York’s energy czar.