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Senator to push energy issues as Interior chief

Ken Salazar said he would help wean the U.S. off foreign oil if he leads the Interior Department, telling lawmakers at his confirmation hearing that he would seek to expand renewable energy.
Interior Secretary Designate Salazar Testifies At Confirmation Hearing
Interior Secretary-designate Ken Salazar is sworn in during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Thursday.Alex Wong / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. Ken Salazar said Thursday he would help wean the U.S. off foreign oil if he leads the Interior Department, telling lawmakers at his confirmation hearing that he would seek to expand renewable energy on public lands and promote the "wise use" of traditional energy sources.

Salazar, D-Colo., appeared before a Senate energy panel considering his nomination to head the agency that manages 500 million acres of public lands, protects wildlife and endangered species, and also oversees development of energy resources.

Salazar said he would work "to make sure that we get energy independence, that we take the moon shot to energy we can take and we really set America free."

In a prepared statement, he said that would entail expanding solar and wind on public and tribal lands and also updating the country's electricity grid.

But he added, "We must also make wise use of our conventional natural resources, including coal, oil and natural gas."

Salazar, who helped broker a deal to expand offshore oil production in the Senate, said that while it was appropriate in some areas "there may be other places that are off limits." He also said oil shale development in the West should not proceed recklessly, without studying the impacts on water and the environment.

His remarks were another sign that the Obama administration will seek a balance between renewables and fossil fuels in its energy choices.

Earlier this week, President-elect Barack Obama's picks to lead the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency indicated that coal and other fossil fuels would still be part of the energy mix.

After the hearing, Salazar made it clear that, if confirmed, he wants the Interior Department to play an even larger role in energy policy.

"In many ways, the Department of Interior is 'the real energy department' because we house the assets that are used as part of our energy role for this nation," Salazar told reporters.

Senators also pressed Salazar on how he would address ethical lapses that have occurred at the department in recent years. Employees have been accused of rigging bids, partying with oil company employees and exerting political influence on endangered species decisions.

"You now have to go in there and drain the swamp," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Salazar said that he wanted "to clean up the mess that exists in the Department of Interior." That overhaul, Salazar said, could include reforms on how royalties are collected from companies drilling for oil and gas on public property and also a review of decisions that could have been politically tainted.

"Even crime has been something that has happened in the Department of Interior," Salazar said. "Our first and foremost task will be to restore the integrity of the Interior Department."

When he announced his choice of Salazar, Obama called the agency "deeply troubled."

In his four years in the Senate, Salazar, 53, has been a champion for what he calls "responsible" energy production on public lands. He opposed efforts by the Bush administration to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but helped broker a deal allowing more offshore production.

Salazar also has been a vocal advocate of renewable energy.

Prior to joining the Senate, Salazar was the Colorado attorney general and headed the state's natural resources department.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee is expected to endorse Salazar's nomination. If confirmed by the full Senate, he will lead an agency with more than 67,000 employees and a $15.8 billion federal budget.