When Ken Salazar came into office as Interior secretary, no large-scale solar projects had been approved and the offshore Cape Wind project near the Massachusetts coast had been stalled for years.
Since then, Salazar has overseen the first major push to permit renewable energy development on public lands, with Interior giving green lights to dozens of solar, wind, geothermal and transmission projects.
Interior's moves were part of a broad green energy initiative that became one of the most-debated features of Obama's first term. Some industry groups have been pressing the administration to switch its emphasis to fossil fuels in the second term so as to capitalize on the boom in domestic oil and natural gas production brought about by technologies such as fracking.
In late October, the administration used the approval of a Wyoming site for a 3,000-megawatt wind farm to celebrate the fact that a combined total of 10 gigawatts of renewable energy had won approval on public lands. That particular project still must go through site-specific environmental reviews.
“When President Obama took office, he made expanding production of American-made energy a priority, including making our nation a world leader in harnessing renewable energy,” Salazar said at the time.
Besides approving various individual renewable energy projects, Salazar has developed longer-lasting strategies designed to boost solar and wind planning in the future.
Salazar set up a solar energy zone program meant to help developers of utility-scale projects identify locations in Western states ripe for collecting the sun’s energy.
He also worked on moving Cape Wind forward as well as broader issues that have plagued offshore wind from gaining a foothold in the U.S., including moving forward on several leases and auctions.
Those long-term plans are still largely untested.
While industry groups and conservation activists have been supportive of the new solar zones, the nascent program still needs to prove it can help lower the costs of permitting enough to be a real boon, some in the industry say. And the U.S. has yet to install a single offshore wind turbine, as Cape Wind stretches into its second decade of planning.
Still, his focus on renewable energy has earned Salazar accolades from its proponents — and criticism from others.
“This administration has accomplished more than any other by doubling renewable energy generation in four short years,” the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition wrote to Salazar in December. “The Department of the Interior has been integral to that accomplishment.”
Administration critics, meanwhile, have latched on to a decline in oil and gas production on public lands even as production from privately held lands reaches new heights.
“The constant message the Obama administration sends to the American people is clear — unreliable, intermittent and expensive energy sources will receive preferential treatment while the affordable and reliable sources we use every day will be taxed, embargoed and driven into bankruptcy,” Dan Kish of the Institute for Energy Research said in October. “President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have presided over the most abysmal stewardship of public lands in recent history.”
The Congressional Research Service has said that oil production on federal lands was up slightly in 2011 compared with 2007. But sales of crude oil and other “condensate production” on federal lands and waters were down in 2011 compared with the previous year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The production estimates became the subject of clashes between Obama and Mitt Romney during their second presidential debate in October.