NEW ORLEANS -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision Wednesday to leave President Obama’s cabinet by the end of March garnered substantial interest on the Gulf Coast.
Those who represent and support the offshore oil and gas industry recall bitterly the deepwater drilling moratorium Salazar imposed in May 2010, a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Venice and set off the worst accidental offshore spill in U.S. history.
“I wish Ken Salazar, a Senate classmate, all the best. But I honestly won't miss him as interior secretary,” Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said. “He supported the drilling moratorium overreaction to the BP disaster that cost us so many jobs. And he consistently made energy production on federal land and water far more difficult and costly."
“We remember the tough days that followed the Deepwater Horizon incident during which Secretary Salazar presided over a moratorium on permits that created significant uncertainty for energy production and energy security,” said Jim Noe, head of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition. “While the Interior Department seemed to pursue long-shot energy alternatives, it created official and de facto moratoriums that hurt the industry, thousands of workers, and the small businesses and communities that depend upon them.”
Then again, environmental groups praised the moratorium as a necessity.
“Of course you have to figure out what went wrong and why before you let people back to work,” said Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network. “They’ve likened drilling on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling on the moon. So when the Challenger exploded, of course we figured out what went wrong before we put another space shuttle up into orbit.”
Possibly more damaging to Salazar’s reputation than the pure policy decision of the moratorium was the way he justified it. A week after the moratorium began, I broke the story of how a report by Salazar made it appear as if a panel of scientists had approved of the moratorium when they had not even seen the proposed ban. That made him the target of a Republican-led congressional probe.
But in the end, it was all chalked up to an editing error. And most of the dire predictions of massive layoffs in Louisiana coastal communities from the moratorium did not come to pass, either.
In retrospect, people have a more measured take on Salazar’s tenure now than they did in the heat of the seemingly interminable oil spill.
Viles said his legacy would be a “mixed bag” because he fixed major problems at Interior that were exposed during the spill, but he also expanded traditional oil and gas exploration and did not show as strong leadership on environmental protection as Lisa Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency secretary who is also leaving Obama’s team.
And even Salazar’s harsh critics in the past are finding some positives in Salazar’s tenure. Tulane Energy Institute Associate Director Eric Smith once said Salazar was the worst interior secretary ever, but now sees some of the possible candidates to replace him – such as former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire – and says, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Gulf Economic Survival Team Executive Director Lori Leblanc, a leading voice against the moratorium, noted Salazar’s role in a policy “that needlessly brought Gulf workers and their communities to their knees,” but also said that under his leadership, “the U.S. is closer than ever before to realizing energy independence.”
But his lasting legacy may turn out to be the new safety requirements he imposed on offshore drilling after the Deepwater Horizon.
“If we as a country use the Gulf oil spill – this crisis – to really deal with these monumental issues of our time, this crisis will be looked back 20 years from now in a very positive way by the American people,” Salazar said during testimony before Congress in 2010.
He oversaw the split of the Interior Department’s old Minerals Management Service into separate agencies to regulate safety and collect royalties. He then hired more inspectors and demanded more accountability.
“Without his strong leadership, the massive and important reforms in offshore drilling regulation following Deepwater Horizon would simply not have been accomplished,” said Michael Bromwich, whom Salazar brought in to run the new safety and regulatory agency. “Those reforms -- both substantive and structural -- are an important part of his legacy.”
But as Eyewitness Investigates recently exposed, the new agency has not been as aggressive as it could have been. The new safety regime empowered the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to conduct audits of oil and gas companies’ safety systems, but hasn’t conducted a single review.
And while Salazar inherited an agency riddled by scandal, he will never be able to shake the fact that MMS was found to be complicit in the failures that led to the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
“You can’t be in charge of an agency that flops so severely which is what we saw with the BP disaster,” Viles said. “… So that was under his watch too.”