Salazar says he's confident that he can take the DOI in a new direction. He remembers fondly the crowd that greeted him that first day on the job. "The employees of the Department of the Interior are good people, and they want to do a good job," he told Westword. "They're open to doing things in a new way. My major priority, the New Energy Frontier, cuts across each of the agencies, from the Bureau of Land Management to the Bureau of Reclamation, the United States Geological Survey, the National Park Service. These cross-cutting themes will help us break down some of the walls."

Two weeks into his presidency, George W. Bush handed the job of reshaping national energy policy to a new task force chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney. Environmental groups soon cried foul, charging that the group was meeting in secret with major oil and gas executives — many of them large donors to the Bush campaign and longtime colleagues of Bush and Cheney in the oil business — and releasing almost no information about its activities.

Coverage of the super-secret task force soon faded, lost in a maelstrom of more pressing news: the September 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq. Despite lawsuits and some dogged reporting by the Washington Post, few details about the group's meetings and the decisions reached have ever come to light. But subsequent events suggest that the task force played a critical part in developing the administration's master plan for domestic energy and particularly for the Department of the Interior.

New Interior sheriff Ken Salazar with his deputy, Tom Strickland, announces a new ethics policy at the federal center in Lakewood.
New Interior sheriff Ken Salazar with his deputy, Tom Strickland, announces a new ethics policy at the federal center in Lakewood.
Economist Pete Morton contends that the Bush drilling boom, the biggest in twenty years, encouraged energy speculators and cheated taxpayers.
Economist Pete Morton contends that the Bush drilling boom, the biggest in twenty years, encouraged energy speculators and cheated taxpayers.


To read Inspector General Earl Devaney's reports, download them here and here. Read previous Westword stories about the Roan Plateau here.

The plan was audacious yet stealthy, multi-faceted yet single-minded. It repudiated not only the so-called "elitist" environmental policies of the Clinton era, but also the concept that public lands should be managed for the benefit of many different constituencies. The Bushies spoke favorably of multi-use in public while privately pursuing one higher, relentless purpose.

Bush's choice for Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, was a former Colorado attorney general, like Salazar. But Norton had also served as lead attorney for the enviro-baiting Mountain States Legal Foundation, launched by James Watt, Reagan's famously combative point man at the DOI ("Grazin' Hell," April 7, 2005). Norton departed in 2006 for a job at Royal Dutch Shell, but during her tenure, several key appointed positions at the department were filled with former energy lobbyists — including Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, a member of Cheney's task force, who resigned in 2004 and was later convicted of obstruction of justice in the Jack Ambramoff scandal.

Among regional managers, there was little doubt that DOI policy was being forged in the White House. "The oil and gas program became the predominant program in the Bureau of Land Management," recalls Ann Morgan, a former state director for the BLM who left in 2002 and now works for the Wilderness Society. "Everything else — water and air quality, wildlife — took a back seat."

Long known as the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining," the BLM had been nudged toward a stronger role in conservation and wilderness planning under the Clinton administration. But Norton soon struck a deal in a dispute with Utah officials that virtually halted the BLM's ability to make recommendations for wilderness designation on its lands; the deal trashed years of costly wilderness studies and opened BLM lands across the West to possible development. And a series of internal memoranda issued during Bush's first term made it clear that the agency was now expected to crank out a record number of energy leases on its 256 million acres, which comprise 40 percent of all the land managed by the federal government. The memos directed land managers "to proceed with leasing even while applicable land use plans were being revised," to suspend lease stipulations and grant exclusions to environmental laws whenever possible, and to figure out how to fit more wells on existing leases, with less time allotted for public comment and protest.

During Bush's first term, the number of oil and gas permits issued by the BLM more than tripled. By 2007, the number of domestic wells being drilled was the highest since the Iraq-Iran war of the early 1980s. Yet all of this activity failed to make any perceptible dent in rising energy prices.

The BLM may have been in the crosshairs of the new plan, but it wasn't the only agency affected. President Bush had promised to make the national parks more hospitable to a wide range of users and to eliminate the parks' backlog of maintenance projects, from unsafe roads to collapsing historic buildings, estimated at $4.9 billion in 2001. Yet by the time he left office the backlog had increased and the cost virtually doubled, to $9.7 billion. The chief of the park police had been fired for talking to a reporter about staffing shortages. And demoralized park employees had been pressured to implement a series of controversial, sometimes nonsensical decisions, from bison slaughters and increased snowmobiling in Yellowstone to an eleventh-hour regulation allowing loaded, concealed firearms in the parks (recently thrown out by a federal judge).

Over at the Minerals Management Service, the President's vow to run government more like a business resulted in fewer audits of the royalty collection process, even as oil and gas production skyrocketed. Several auditors complained that energy companies were defrauding the public out of millions of dollars. One whistleblower, Bobby Maxwell, soon found himself out of a job and decided to pursue a claim against Kerr-McGee for underpaid royalties — without the government's help. Last fall, right around the time Devaney was releasing his scathing reports on the un-businesslike relationships between MMS regulators and energy-industry officials, a federal appeals court reinstated a jury verdict Maxwell won against Kerr-McGee that could be worth as much as $40 million.

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Despite having only recently been appointed Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar has ruffled a lot of feathers, such as recently announcing an end to Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s oyster farm lease for environmental concerns. It is not an extremely popular decision, especially since millions of dollars is on the line. But I am glad environmental concerns trumps money, and building offshore wind farm will open doors to innovative types of renewable energy. However, I hope more studies and research are infused into this to determine the severity (if any) of negative impacts on the environment.