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Obama Interior pick, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, an environmental question mark

Environmentalists are worried that President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for Interior secretary is too cozy with oil and mining interests and isn’t committed enough to conservation.

Obama yesterday named first-term Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat, to head up the department, which regulates U.S. natural and cultural resources.

"I will do all I can to help reduce America's dependence on foreign oil,” Salazar said yesterday at a Chicago press conference where Obama introduced him as his pick. Salazar added that he hoped to “take the moon-shot on energy independence” as Obama develops a combination of green and traditional sources of energy, including wind, coal and natural gas, according to the New York Times.

During his four years in the Senate, Salazar, 53, supported expanding offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but opposed opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. Salazar in 2007 won approval for a measure that required an extra year of environmental-impact study before the Bureau of Land Management issued its final rules on oil shale exploration, which involves crushing and heating rock to extract fuel. Oil shale development is still a commercially speculative idea, and is controversial because its production releases more climate-change causing greenhouse gases than regular oil. After the bureau released its rules last month, Salazar complained that allowing the practice would threaten his state's water supply.

Salazar, meantime, failed to persuade the Bush administration to lease the Roan Plateau — a region in Western Colorado believed to hold 8.9 trillion cubic feet (252 billion cubic meters) of natural gas — in separate stages, rather than in one fell swoop, the Washington Post reports. (In August, the administration leased more than 54 million acres on the plateau to energy companies for nearly $114 million.)

"He's been supportive of public lands energy development, but he thinks it needs to be done responsibly and protect the other uses out there," Dwayne Meadows, a field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told the Post. "He didn't say, 'Don't drill the Roan Plateau,' but, 'Make sure you protect hunting and fishing recreational uses as well.'"

Salazar was chief of Colorado’s natural resources department from 1990 to 1994 and served as the state’s attorney general from 1990 to 2005. Industry groups like him because, among other things, he pushed for legislation (still pending) that would limit the liability of mining companies that clean up abandoned mines.

“Nothing in his record suggests he’s an ideologue,” Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, told the Times. “Here’s a man who understands the issues, is open-minded and can see at least two sides of an issue.”

But Daniel Patterson, southwest regional director of the enviro group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, charged that he's in the pocket of industry. 

“It’s no surprise oil and gas, mining, agribusiness and other polluting industries that have dominated Interior are supporting rancher Salazar," Patterson, a former official of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, told the Times. "He's their friend."

Image of Sen. Ken Salazar/U.S. Senate

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