Stimulus package spotlights Interior

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Ken Salazar believes the Department of the Interior, which he leads, will play a critical role in the country’s economic recovery.

During a round robin with reporters last week in Washington, D.C., Colorado’s former U.S. senator and newly appointed secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior said President Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic recovery package will support renewable energy and job creation projects, and that the nation’s public lands will play critical role.

Salazar expects more than $3 billion from the recovery package, signed by Obama in Denver on Feb. 16, will go to Interior Department programs.

“I believe this investment in the Department of Interior is very important because we will be able to move forward to create the most number of jobs in the shortest period of time,” Salazar said.

“Investments in our nation’s landmarks are important ... and I see today’s challenges as an opportunity to create the same kind of lasting legacy as FDR created.”

Salazar — who recently focused on the effect the recovery package will have on national land by leading reporters on a tour of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City — said the money will offer an opportunity to help create more efficient, cleaner energy derived from renewable sources.

“There has been one plan in America during the last eight years in terms of energy — and that is to drill for oil,” Salazar said. “We need to create a game plan that has a road forward. And that, in my opinion, is to find renewable energy potential both on shore and off shore.”

One of Salazar’s first moves as Interior secretary was reviewing leases granted to energy companies by the administration of George W. Bush to drill for oil and natural gas on public land.

That review led to the cancellation of some proposed leases in Utah and to the delay of other leases affecting proposed drilling projects in Colorado, other Western states and offshore.

In a statement released Wednesday, Gov. Bill Ritter applauded Salazar’s efforts to slow down the leasing process on the Roan Plateau on Colorado’s Western Slope.

“I applaud Secretary Salazar’s commitment to take a more deliberate look at the Bush administration’s hasty decision to offer a second round of oil shale research development and demonstration leases,” Ritter’s statement read. “As I have said many times, my administration continues to support RD&D efforts that are currently underway.”

Republicans disagree, saying energy jobs are already being lost because of those reviews and that more will be lost if Salazar and President Obama continue to impede the nation’s exploration and extraction of natural resources.

True to his self-proclaimed status as “the new sheriff in town,” Salazar said the nation is best served when oil and natural gas are extracted through a judicious approach that minimizes environmental impact while promoting renewable energy production — an effort that has not been achieved to date.

“We have not (been) proactive in terms of locating the best sites and the best renewable resources,” Salazar said. “When that is done, we have to figure out how to get the (transmission) grid upgraded, which is part of the recovery package, so as to find a way to get that (renewable) energy out to be consumed.

“It doesn’t do us much good to produce that new energy if we can’t get it out to Los Angles or Phoenix or Denver,” he said.

Salazar acknowledged that none of that will be easy, and that criticism will emerge from both sides of the aisle regardless of the direction the Department of Interior heads.

“I don’t believe that we will please everyone in the end, but I do believe the time for a new energy economy is here, and the recovery package is going to help us get there,” he said.

Some detractors have said the funds allocated to the Department of the Interior have been specifically designated for projects unrelated to energy production, including mine cleanups and repair and maintenance projects on national lands.

Salazar, however, shrugged off that criticism, saying any new construction projects on public lands will be completed using methods that employ clean energy and efficient design.

Although the recovery package designates $750 million to the National Parks Service for repairs and structural needs, it would address only about 10 percent of the parks system’s backlog of projects. Many long-delayed maintenance projects will remain untouched.

Salazar said he isn’t sure how much of the $750 million will go to Colorado, if any, noting that priorities will be set in coming months according to two factors: How many jobs will be created by any given project and how much renewable energy or conservation can be achieved.

“(We) need to put Americans back to work,” he said, while acknowledging the long road ahead. “But we still have a long way to go if we are going to restore our national icons and lands to where they should be.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com