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Salazar Says He Will Stay Put at Interior

Ending days of speculation, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Thursday said he will not run for governor of Colorado and instead will back popular Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper as the Democratic candidate for the state's top job.

"I am endorsing John Hickenlooper for governor of Colorado...As for me, I have a job to do as secretary of the Interior to implement President Obama's vision for a clean energy economy and to better protect America's great outdoors," said Salazar, who before being tapped as Interior secretary had represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate and had been the state's attorney general.

Producers were unfazed by Salazar's decision to stay put, with most noting that the Obama administration's unfavorable policies on oil and natural gas development would have continued regardless of whether Salazar or another Obama appointee heads the Interior Department.

"A change in leadership at Interior might help our nation's energy security and economic recovery, but I'm not convinced that Secretary Salazar is really calling the shots. There seems to be a fundamental disregard of the long-term benefits of producing American natural gas by this administration," said Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.

Dan Naatz, vice president of federal resources for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, agreed, saying "my first hunch is that there probably would not be much of a change" in policy direction toward oil and gas if Salazar had left.

In the first year of the Obama administration, "we have seen a heavy-handed approach from the White House on environment and energy policy. It's been a very top-down, directed approach," he said.

Nor did Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), anticipate any policy changes for oil and gas if there had been a change in leadership at Interior. "I think Salazar's been pretty much implementing what you would expect from the Obama administration."

Salazar fueled speculation about his political aspirations last Wednesday when he ducked press questions about whether he might throw his hat in the ring as a Democratic candidate for governor.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who was once considered a rising Democratic star, has stumbled on various issues since taking office and alienated several business groups, including the energy industry. Last Wednesday Ritter announced that he would not seek a second term.

Producers give Salazar low marks for his performance as Interior secretary. "We've worked with him [Salazar] when he was in the U.S. Senate, when he was the attorney general of Colorado and we always had a positive response. But it's been a struggle in Interior," Naatz said. "We've been disappointed in the secretary's activities so far," which have been "pretty aggressive" in their opposition to oil and gas development on public lands, he noted.

Salazar started off 2009 by withdrawing leases to develop oil and gas on public lands in northeastern Utah, and then moved to delay the completion of a review of the new five-year (2010-2015) leasing program, which critics said had the same effect as reinstating the moratorium on drilling in the federal Outer Continental Shelf (see NGI, Feb. 16, 2009; Feb. 9, 2009).

And last week Salazar launched an ambitious reform of the Bureau of Land Management to improve onshore land, water and habitat protections and to reduce a sharp increase in protests and litigation -- changes that producers say are likely to stall new onshore oil and gas development plans across the country (see related story).

While disappointed in Salazar's record, Naatz said the IPAA would miss Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), who last week announced he would retire at the end of the year. "He has been a strong supporter of producers and hydraulic fracturing, particularly in the Bakken Formation in North Dakota," he noted.

"I think we'll see a number of additional retirements as the year progresses" from Democrats in both the House and Senate, said INGAA's Edwards. This will be due to a "changing political environment and the presence of potentially strong opposition candidates," he noted. But Edwards said the impact of the retirements on energy issues in Congress remains to be seen.

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