A “fifth-generation son of the West” and nominee for the top post at the U.S. Department of Interior told a Senate committee Thursday his first priority will be to clean up the scandal-plagued agency. President-elect Obama’s pick for Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, also emphasized the need for renewable energy development and conservation.

“We need to develop our resources, but we need to develop them in a thoughtful and responsible way,” Salazar told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The committee, of which the Democratic senator still is a member, met for nearly three hours Thursday for Salazar’s confirmation hearing.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, was perhaps the most skeptical member of the panel. He said he had been worried Salazar was going to “cut off” the nation’s energy supply but was encouraged by his support of nuclear power.

During questioning Salazar did allow that he thought some areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) should be off limits to oil and gas drilling. Currently there are no restrictions on OCS drilling as President Bush removed a ban last summer (see Daily GPI, July 15, 2008). Congressional Republicans and Democrats from oil and gas producing states were successful at ending a congressional ban as well (see Daily GPI, Sept. 30, 2008).

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) noted that as head of Interior, Salazar will lead an agency of 73,000 people, which also “is the biggest landlord of public land in Alaska.” Murkowski was the senator who popped the question about reinstating a moratorium on drilling on the OCS.

“As President-elect Obama has said, and I very much agree with him on this position, what we need to do is to look at the OCS in the context of a comprehensive energy plan…Development is part of that program, and within the OCS given the opening up of the five-year plan within the Department of Interior, it really is up to me in consultation with you and obviously with President-elect Obama about how we move forward on the OCS.

“But we will have a very open process with you and others as we decide how to move forward with that. The fact of the matter is that there are places in the OCS where it is appropriate for drilling as this committee and this congress has done in places in the Gulf of Mexico, some places in Alaska as well. There may be some places that are off limits. But I think what we need is to have a thoughtful process as we go forward…”

Salazar’s answers were generally light on specifics, and committee members seemed unwilling to press him. The cordial meeting was described as a “bouquet tossing” by one lawmaker. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) praised Salazar for his “pureness of heart” and noted that Interior is “in need of extraordinary reform” as she pledged to vote to confirm him.

Prior to coming to Capitol Hill in 2004, Salazar was Colorado’s attorney general and head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources. He will inherit a scandal-riddled agency. As Obama settled on Salazar for the Interior post, Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney last month submitted a report to Congress that found agency officials had doctored scientific work to preclude certain species from receiving protections under the Endangered Species Act (see Daily GPI, Dec. 17, 2008). This came only three months after Devaney delivered reports to Congress revealing a side of Interior’s Minerals Management Service that few could have imagined — one that involved drug use, sex with oil industry contacts and between former employees of the agency’s royalty in kind program, as well as rigging of contracts and other financial misdealings (see Daily GPI, Sept. 11, 2008).

“Our first and foremost task will be to restore the integrity of the Department of Interior and to bring the highest level of ethics back to the functions of this critical department for our nation’s governance,” Salazar told the committee.

“[Y]ou have to go in there and drain the swamp,” Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-OR) told Salazar.

Energy-related topics were only a fraction of what was discussed during the hearing as a number of senators appealed to Salazar with their views on allowing firearms and snowmobiles on federal lands, protecting endangered species and water resources and safeguarding the rights of Native Americans, among other things. Salazar described a vision for Interior in which the department’s role stretches from coast to coast.

“I want this department to be America’s department, and I think for far too long the Department of Interior has been seen as the department only of the West,” he said. “The fact is that this department touches not only the 50 states but the territories and oceans and in fact it’s footprint is global. And it is with that kind of ambition that I approach this job knowing that we can make the difference that will help change the world in a very good way for the people of America.”

Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said he hoped the committee could confirm Salazar’s nomination “as soon as it is received next week.”

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