Former Obama Interior Chief Calls for Energy Security, Independence, Through Mix of Fuels and Technology
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described America’s changing energy outlook during his years in government and offered his insight on what it would look like during a webinar hosted by the Colorado Energy & Water Institute. Salazar described how energy independence is tied to national security and is a goal that consecutive administrations sought for decades—largely without success.
“My feeling about energy throughout all the times I’ve worked on the issue is that we have to envelop it in the world of security,” Salazar said. “There are these three policy pillars that have driven my work and they are national security—the conflicts in the Middle East and Venezuela. It’s about economic security—knowing what’s happened in the past, the creation of OPEC and the stranglehold they had for many years on our economy, and [it’s about] environmental security,” he continued.
Salazar, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado before being tapped by President Obama to lead the Interior Department, joined the Colorado Energy and Water Institute, an organization that brings together industry and regulators to discuss energy and water issues in the West, for a webinar. During the wide-ranging discussion, he talked of his experiences in government and the important changes he saw on the horizon for the energy industry in western states.
The blending of energy and national security was recognized as early as the Nixon administration, when the U.S. imported less than 30 percent of its oil, but many figures in industry and government were concerned that the number would grow. These worries came to pass during the Carter years, when gas lines and soaring energy costs became emblematic.
Salazar spent his time on Capitol Hill trying to help improve American energy independence, a campaign that, for him, culminated in his work writing the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It was under the terms established in this legislation, he argued, that the foundations of the shale boom of 2008, which changed America’s energy future dramatically, were laid.
“It is amazing to me how the world is changing before our very eyes and how fast it has changed,” he said, pointing to rapid growth in both domestic fossil fuel production and record-setting growth in wind and solar installations.
However, recent weeks have thrown these gains into jeopardy, as a Saudi-Russia price war combined with the shuttering of many industries due to the coronavirus pandemic have crashed oil prices and left many American shale producers reeling, especially since financial institutions were already beginning to tighten their investment in the energy sector.
Though Salazar believes the demand for energy will rebound, the effects of this price shock will likely linger, he said
“I believe companies realize they can’t do things the way they used to do them in the past,” Salazar said, adding that companies will likely need operate in a tighter credit market and will need to take more care to protect environmentally-sensitive areas.
In recent years, Salazar has opposed legislation that increased regulation of oil and gas production. Last spring he criticized SB 181, calling it “too extreme for Colorado” and warning that it would turn the industry on its head. He took a similar position on Colorado’s Prop. 112 in 2018, which he called “reckless” and a “job-killer.”
However, operating with care is not the same thing as the net-zero or fossil-fuel-free future proposed by many environmental activists and some vocal members of Congress. In 2018, for instance, he told members of the Colorado Petroleum Council and the state’s oil and gas industry that he disagreed with the climate liability suits filed by Boulder and other cities.
Salazar’s independent streak has continued. Despite the push by some Democrats to put a “Green New Deal” on their national platform, questions about reliability and intermittency mean that oil and natural gas will continue to help move the economy forward in the years to come.
What that energy future looks like will be a reflection of policy and practice, according to Salazar, both the legislation written in Congress and its implementation at the department and agency levels. This interplay may make future policies harder to predict, but it cannot erase their importance.
“No matter where our world goes, water and energy are going to be keystones,” he concluded.