Ken Salazar under fire: Can he survive the spill?

It was fairly predictable that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar would emerge as the whipping-boy of conservative pundits over the Deepwater Horizon spill.

What better symbol of the alleged impotence of the Obama administration than a cowboy-hatted bureaucrat who blusters about keeping his foot on the neck of British Petroleum while the Gulf Coast gets bathed in oil?

But when your former supporters on the left start comparing your performance to that of Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown in the wake of Katrina, it's time to start re-evaluating your career options. Is it too late for Sheriff Ken to get into that governor's race back home?

The latest attack on Salazar comes from Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation. He blasts the Secretary as "one of the strongest advocates of offshore drilling in Washington" and questions his ability to regulate the industry. It's a thoughtful if not exactly damning argument.

The environmental community has long questioned Salazar's track record in dealing with Big Energy, and since the Deepwater disaster, there have been a number of damaging revelations about his willingness to continue the Bush tradition of granting "categorical exclusions" that allowed expanded offshore drilling without analyses of environmental impacts, missed safety inspections and other questionable regulatory lapses.

Salazar has been called on the carpet for having "misspoke" before Congress about halting offshore permits since April 20 (not true) and seems to have spent far more energy heaping blame on BP and his predecessors than on swift and decisive action. Thursday's revelation that the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf is two to four times worse than his administration had previously admitted doesn't help, either.

Yet Salazar still has his defenders among certain green groups and middle-of-the-road sportsmen interests; Trout Unlimited is one of the sponsors of an ad running in various outlets now comparing him to Teddy Roosevelt. His chief fault may be the same quality that made him a natural (if somewhat offbeat) pick for Obama's Cabinet in the first place. He's a bit of a plodder, a consensus-builder, more pragmatist than ideologue.

There's no question that Salazar recognized that the Minerals Management Service, the agency that oversees offshore drilling, needed serious overhaul and made it a high priority early on. But turning the ship around takes time, especially when you're as keen on building support on both sides of the aisle, as Salazar always has been. Whether his own advocacy for expanded offshore drilling as part of his "New Energy Frontier" got in the way, or whether he simply focused more on the easy reforms than the hard ones, the hard questions about deepwater drilling never got asked until it was too late.

Salazar might well weather this mess, as he weathered Summitville and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal lawsuits in his state jobs. For President Obama to shed him in the midst of the crisis would only raise more nasty questions. But it seems quite likely that the Secretary has asked himself a few times by now why he didn't grab at that governor's seat when it became clear there would be a vacancy this fall.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast