WASHINGTON — U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged some conflicts with the oil and gas industry during his first year in office, but said Monday that he’s trying to protect taxpayers and the environment. Meeting with reporters for a session of the Platts Energy Podium, the secretary also said that natural gas will have a role as the nation moves toward clean energy. He said he was not familiar with bipartisan legislation being promoted by T. Boone Pickens to shift heavy vehicles to natural gas use. Salazar, who was a U.S. senator from Colorado when he agreed last year to be interior secretary in the new Obama administration, has frustrated the oil and gas industry with what it sees as delays in opening up federal lands to exploration. Two weeks ago, the secretary characterized the oil and gas industry as "essentially the kings of the world” under former President George W. Bush’s administration. He said that era has come to an end as he announced expanded environmental reviews of areas subject to oil and gas leasing. U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, criticized Salazar’s "kings of the world” rhetoric and sent him a letter accusing the department of killing jobs in an industry made up primarily of small businesses. Asked on Monday about his relationship with the industry, Salazar said, "I am very much at peace with everything we’ve done concerning reforms for the oil and gas world, and there are more reforms to come.”
Changes madeBesides expanding environmental reviews, Salazar also killed the program that allowed energy companies to give the government oil and gas instead of paying royalties for production on federal lands; critics said the program short-changed taxpayers. The secretary also withdrew Bush-era proposals to expand oil shale research on public lands, and he reorganized the oft-maligned Minerals Management Service. Though Congress did not pass the administration’s proposal to raise the royalty rate for energy produced on public lands, Salazar defended it on Monday and suggested he would propose royalty increases again. "Ultimately the oil and gas industry is an important part of our economy,” he said. "They are a huge part of our economic sector. I want to have a good, constructive relationship with them. It doesn’t mean that I will always agree with them. It doesn’t mean that their trade associations won’t throw a lot of spears at my head, which they will probably will.” He said he intends to "manage the nation’s oil and natural gas and other resources in the context of some very important principles that I will not back down from.” Those principles included protecting the American taxpayer and "not tarnishing the treasured landscapes of America,” he said. "The public lands and oil and gas resources are owned by American citizens,” Salazar said. "They are not owned by oil and gas companies. And so it’s my job to make sure the American taxpayer gets fair treatment.” Salazar and others in President Barack Obama’s administration have seemingly made no policy distinction between oil and natural gas, despite the abundant domestic supply and the fact that natural gas burns cleaner than oil and coal. Pickens, Boren and others have been pushing legislation to provide tax incentives for manufacturing natural gas vehicles and providing refueling stations. Salazar said Monday he was not familiar with the bill. "But I do believe there are ways in which natural gas can play a very important role with respect to our future as we try to move toward cleaner energy resources,” said the secretary of the interior.