As Obama's man at Interior, Salazar has wasted no time in creating real change. In his first weeks on the job, the secretary delighted critics on the left by canceling 77 oil and gas leases that Bush had authorized near Utah's national parks, including ones that would have put oil derricks within eyesight of both Arches and Dinosaur. Salazar also delayed Bush's timeline for opening the Eastern seaboard and California coast to drilling – terming it "a headlong rush of the worst kind." And he shelved Bush's plan for oil-shale mining in the Rockies, announcing instead an aggressive initiative to develop renewable-energy installations on federal lands.
The new administration, Salazar tells Rolling Stone, is seeking to recoup the billions in federal revenue lost to "royalty relief" by implementing a new excise tax on drilling profits in the Gulf. And he pledges a thorough review of Interior's royalty policies – for both onshore and offshore drilling – to ensure the American people receive a "fair market return" in exchange for natural resources. "We are pursuing a 21st-century land and water conservation effort that will hopefully surpass what Teddy Roosevelt did for this country almost 100 years ago," Salazar says.
But in other areas, critics say, the Interior secretary has betrayed his allegiances as a longtime rancher and conservative Democrat. After a brief review of one of Bush's most controversial decisions, Salazar concurred with the previous administration's call to remove the gray wolf from endangered-species status. "We all expected more from the Obama administration," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president for Defenders of Wildlife. "All the reasons why this plan was a bad idea when the Bush administration proposed it still stand today. If this rule is allowed, nearly two-thirds of the wolves in the northern Rockies could be killed."
While environmentalists plan to sue to block the decision, which they believe was based on "MacDonalded" science, Salazar's decision has won praise from conservative Democrats who forged a crucial part of Obama's electoral coalition in Western states. Salazar, for his part, is unapologetic. "I'm not here to please the environmental community," he says. "From my point of view it was a science-based decision."
In another disturbing move, Salazar placed an additional 1.2 million acres of Western land on the auction block, inviting oil and gas companies to bid on drilling leases. And in his opening address at Interior, he preached the virtues of far-fetched technologies like "clean coal" and "carbon capture and sequestration," emphasizing that "oil and gas and coal resources are very much a part of the equation for our energy future."
While few question Salazar's determination to stamp out the criminal legacy of the Bush administration, longtime observers wonder whether the Colorado rancher has the gumption to truly overhaul a department that – even under Democratic administrations – has long catered to profit-seekers over the public interest. "Salazar is the Old West – that's what the cowboy boots and bolo ties are all about," says Phil Doe, a former top regulator at Interior. "His friends are the people who have run the system for so long. The boot-and-buckle boys – they understand each other. How is he going to make a break from these people? I don't think he can. I don't think he knows how."
This article originally appeared in RS 1076 from April 16, 2009. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via All Access, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full issue. Not a member? Click here to learn more about All Access.
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