Salazar reflects on energy policy, climate change

Outgoing Interior Secretary returning home to Colorado
The Colorado Statesman

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sounded the alarm over climate change during his remarks at the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture last Thursday in Denver.

“No matter what you may hear from some people, including some people in this room, our climate is, in fact, warming,” Salazar told the nearly 200 attendees gathered for the day-long conference at the Denver Renaissance Hotel.

Introduced by his brother, Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, Salazar recounted an experiment the two undertook when they were youngsters growing up on the family ranch in the San Luis Valley, where the family had lived going back five generations. (The two constructed competing potato cellars, though only Ken’s spuds made it through the winter unscathed, because an older brother had told him he needed to vent the cellar. “So that seems like a long time ago,” he added wryly.)

Former Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are all smiles after Salazar delivered the keynote address at the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture on Feb. 14 at the Denver Renaissance Hotel.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Salazar, a former U.S. senator and Colorado attorney general — the motto of his campaigns was “Fighting for Colorado’s land, water and people” — plans to step down from Interior and return to the state next month.

“My roots are steeped in agriculture,” Salazar said, telling the crowd that “people should feel very good about what’s happening in rural America” after four years of the Obama administration’s policies.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says it’s a top priority of the Obama administration to “celebrate agriculture (and) continue to create opportunities for rural America” in his keynote address at the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture on Feb. 14 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Those policies include negotiating free trade agreements that have opened up export markets, he said, but added that it wasn’t just food production but also technological advances such as rural broadband that have marked the administration’s commitment to rural Americans.

“We will always be cheerleaders and partners as we work with all of you to make sure rural America has its place at the table,” Salazar said.

USDA Under Secretary Michael Scuse and former Colorado Ag Commissioner Don Ament talk during a break at the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture on Feb. 14.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Along with food security and the land’s heritage and values, he said, rural America has played an important role in an energy policy Salazar said has been taking shape since he helped pass key energy legislation during the middle of the last decade when he served in the U.S. Senate.

At that time, he said, the country was expected to soon be importing 70 percent of its oil but is now only import-ing 45 percent from foreign countries, a change he attributed to an aggressive set of policies and technological ad-vances achieved during the last decade.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, former Ag Commissioner Don Ament and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar share a story at the Governor's Forum on Colorado Agriculture on Feb. 14.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We knew what we needed to do, was to grasp the new energy frontier,” Salazar said, adding that it wasn’t just the share of foreign oil that has declined. “We are importing less oil than at any time since 1995.”

Increased natural gas production is part of it, he said, but over the past four years the country has also doubled the production of renewable energy, including wind, solar, geothermal and biofuels, particularly on the millions of acres of public lands Salazar manages.

“The reality of it was, in January 2009, there had been zero megawatts of energy that had been permitted on the 250 million acre estate of the Bureau of Land Management,” he said. “Four years later, by the end of 2012, we had permitted 10,000 megawatts of power from solar, from wind, from geothermal,” including one of the largest wind projects in the world off the coast of the Atlantic. Since the typical power plant produces roughly 350 megawatts each year, he noted, that’s the equivalent of some 30 power plants permitted in just the last four years.

But clean energy production is just part of the solution.

“Rural America will play a keystone role in addressing what is not only an imperative for the United States of America but an imperative for the entire (world),” Salazar said, turning his attention to global warming.

Salazar noted that he has had an up-close look at the effects of climate change running Interior, from rangers at Montana’s Glacier National Park in Montana warning that “there will be no glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2020” to watching “the coastlines of the Arctic basically falling off and going into the Arctic Ocean” above the Arctic Circle.

But Colorado’s farmers and ranchers should understand what’s coming, too, he said, after witnessing the ongoing drought that has afflicted the region, which Salazar termed “the most significant drought” in the last 1,000 years.

“Every single scientist, every water modeler who’s looked at it, has said we have a problem on the Colorado River looking forward,” Salazar said gravely, repeating predictions that precipitation could decline by as much as 20 percent in coming decades. Even taking a conservative estimate, he said, on a river already over-subscribed and whose flow has been over-allocated in historic river compacts, “It means we need to get ahead of that, recognizing those water shortages are coming.”

The Rio Grande Basin — already “as dry as it’s been in 1,000 years” — is facing similar precipitation shortfalls in coming years, Salazar said.

“When you look at that kind of a decline, it should shock you into recognizing that, for those naysayers who say that we don’t have to deal with the issue of our climate — that when you ask the best scientists from the greatest universities of our country, who aren’t Republican and aren’t Democrat, don’t have an ideological agenda one way or another, or an economic interest to look at — that this is an issue that we have to grapple with,” Salazar said.

He admitted that the solutions are elusive, but argued against paralysis due to partisan divides over the causes of climate change.

“What is the prescription for how we move forward? I don’t have the answers, nor does anybody. But that we need to address the issue is something we need to come together on, and we need to figure out how to do it,” Salazar said.

“If we don’t learn how to change and anticipate those further declines that we’re going to see in precipitation throughout the entire Southwest, we’re not going to be able to continue the great strength we have seen in rural America over the last four years.”

Former state agriculture commissioner Don Ament, who served 12 years in the state legislature and was a member of the State Board of Education before that, agreed that climate change wasn’t a partisan issue but added that droughts were nothing new.

“I think he might be right that it isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue, but I think it’s an issue where people like us who’ve been in agriculture forever have been dealing with climate change forever,” Ament told The Colorado Statesman after Salazar’s remarks. “There’ve been dry and wet (years), so I’m more interested in management of everyday things rather than putting a big name out there scary ‘climate change.’ I think we deal with what we have every single day, we plan and we manage.”

Ament said that earlier snow melt and other “extreme patterns” presented challenges to agriculture but dismissed the doomsayers.

“So what do you do? You build reservoirs. This talk about tearing down reservoirs, still we hear. I think you build reservoirs and you store water when you have it, and you manage it as best you can,” he said. “We’re making tremendous increases in how we apply water. The other thing we’re doing is the technology in drought-resistant seeds. Monsanto is saying we’re going to double our corn production, and you do it with less water. Those are the kind of things that I think respond to climate change concerns, and that’s something we can start doing tomorrow.”

Asked whether he planned to return to politics after leaving his cabinet post next month, Salazar chuckled and demurred.

“Right now my goal is simply to do as good a job as I can during the time I’m secretary of interior — I still have six weeks,” he told reporters. “What happens after that, I don’t know. I’m coming home to Colorado, returning to the place I was born, to the place I will be buried. I’m coming home to be with my family.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com