WASHINGTON (AP) — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversaw a moratorium on offshore drilling after the BP oil spill and promoted alternative energy sources throughout the nation, will step down in March.
A former U.S. senator from Colorado, Salazar ran the Interior Department throughout President Barack Obama's first term and pushed renewable power such as solar and wind and the settlement of a longstanding dispute with American Indians.
With Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson also leaving the administration and Energy Secretary Steven Chu expected to depart, Obama will have a clean slate of top officials overseeing energy and environment issues.
In a statement Wednesday, Obama said Salazar had helped "usher in a new era of conservation for our nation's land, water and wildlife" and had played a major role in efforts to expand responsible development of the nation's domestic energy resources.
Salazar said in a statement that the Interior Department was helping secure "a new energy frontier" and cited an aggressive agenda to reform oil and gas leases, which he said had increased offshore drilling safety.
Under his watch, the Interior Department has authorized nearly three dozen solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands that provide enough electricity to power more than 3 million homes, Salazar said.
Obama has vowed to focus on efforts to bolster renewable energy in a second term while continuing to expand production of oil and natural gas. He also has made it clear he will focus on climate change, an issue he has acknowledged was sometimes overlooked during his first term.
Former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a longtime Obama ally, is among those mentioned as a potential successor to Salazar, along with John Berry, director of the White House Office of Personnel Management. Berry is a former assistant interior secretary and the director of the National Zoo. Gregoire, whose term expired Wednesday, also is considered a candidate to head the Energy Department or the EPA.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee and a favorite of the environmental community, also is believed to be under consideration for Salazar's position.
Salazar, 57, entered the Senate with Obama in 2005. At Interior, he gained the most attention for his role in the drilling moratorium, a key part of the administration's response to the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers. The resulting oil spill was one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history and led to the unprecedented shutdown of offshore drilling.
Business groups and Gulf Coast political leaders said the shutdown crippled the oil and gas industry and cost thousands of jobs, even aboard rigs not operated by BP PLC. But Salazar said the industry-wide moratorium was the correct call and that his ultimate goal was to allow deep-water operations to resume safely.
"Today, drilling activity in the Gulf is surpassing levels seen before the spill, and our nation is on a promising path to energy independence," Salazar said in his statement Wednesday.