Salazar Vows to Restore Integrity of Interior Dept.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Interior Secretary-designate Ken Salazar pledged yesterday to clean up the "mess" at the Interior Department, which has been marred by scandals in recent years.

"Our first and foremost task will be to restore the integrity of the Department of Interior," Salazar, a Democratic senator from Colorado, said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The department's Minerals Management Service, which runs a royalty-in-kind program, came under fire in September after its inspector general reported that employees used illegal drugs and had sex with and accepted gifts from workers at the oil companies they were hired to oversee.

The royalty-in-kind program collects and sells about $4 billion in oil and gas turned over by oil companies for use of federal land for energy development. In its stewardship of public land, the Interior Department is responsible for leasing federal land for energy development.

Another key issue Salazar will face, if confirmed, is whether to move forward with leasing the Outer Continental Shelf for energy production. Offshore drilling was banned in most areas for more than 20 years until Congress allowed the prohibition to expire in September, with the support of President Bush and many other Republicans.

Many Democrats have been staunchly opposed to expanding drilling off the coast and have proposed reimposing the ban or placing more restrictions on drilling.

Salazar said he agrees with President-elect Barack Obama that offshore drilling should be a part of a comprehensive energy plan and said he will consult with lawmakers as he decides how to proceed.

As secretary of the interior, Salazar would manage the department's 500 million acres of surface land as well as 1.76 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf, including 8,300 active oil and gas leases on 44 million offshore acres.

In addition to energy issues, the Interior Department manages national parks, federal relations with American Indian tribes and the endangered species program.

Lawmakers questioned Salazar about his position on commercial oil shale production. He has been critical of the Bush administration's push to rush leasing for oil shale development, and he reiterated his stance at the hearing.

"We need to look at it as part of a comprehensive energy plan, but we ought not be reckless or thoughtless about how we move forward," Salazar said.

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