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Ken Salazar, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, July 26, 2009

Ken SalazarJust north of the Colorado-New Mexico border, in the sunny expanses of my native San Luis Valley, America’s clean energy future is taking root.

Under President Obama’s leadership, four tracts of land in southern Colorado and two dozen tracts across six Western states may soon be supplying American homes with clean, renewable electricity from the first large-scale solar power projects on our nation’s public lands.

The 24 Solar Energy Study Areas that Interior is evaluating for environmentally appropriate solar energy development could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity, enough to power more than 29 million American homes.

The West’s vast solar energy potential – along with wind, geothermal and other renewables – can power our economy with affordable energy, create thousands of new jobs and reduce the carbon emissions that are warming our planet.

As President Obama has said, we can remain the world’s largest importer of oil or we can become the world’s largest exporter of clean energy. The choice is clear, and the economic opportunities too great to miss. Will we rise to the challenge?

It is time that Washington step up to the plate, just as states like Colorado and local governments are already doing. Congress must pass strong and effective legislation that will steer our nation toward a clean energy economy that creates new jobs and improves our energy security.

We will not fully unleash the potential of the clean energy economy unless Congress puts an upper limit on the emissions of heat-trapping gases that are damaging our environment. Doing so will level the playing field for new technologies by allowing the market to put a price on carbon, and will trigger massive investment in renewable energy projects across the country.

We are also seeing the dangerous consequences of climate change: longer and hotter fire seasons, reduced snow packs, rising sea levels and declines of wildlife. Farmers, ranchers, municipalities and other water users in Colorado and across the West are facing the possibility of a grim future in which there is less water to go around.

But with comprehensive clean energy legislation from Congress, sound policies and wise management of our nation’s lands and oceans, we can change the equation.

That is why I am changing how the federal government does business on the 20% of the nation’s land mass and 1.75 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf that we oversee. We are now managing these lands not just for balanced oil, natural gas, and coal development, but also – for the first time ever – to allow environmentally responsible renewable energy projects that can help power President Obama’s vision for our clean energy future.

American business is responding to these new opportunities. Companies are investing in wind farms off the Atlantic seacoast, solar facilities in the Southwest and geothermal energy projects throughout the West. We need comprehensive legislation that will create new jobs, promote investment in a new generation of energy technology, break our dependence on foreign oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Let us rise to the energy challenges of our time.

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JOHN M. BRODER, The New York Times, December 18, 2008

17transition2-6001President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Interior Department, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, will inherit an agency demoralized by years of scandal, political interference and mismanagement.

He must deal with the sharp tension between those who seek to exploit public lands for energy, minerals and recreation and those who want to preserve the lands. He will be expected to restore scientific integrity to a department where it has repeatedly been compromised. He will be responsible for ending the department’s coziness with the industries it regulates. And he will have to work hard to overcome skepticism among many environmentalists about his views on resource and wildlife issues.

One senior Interior Department executive described the job Mr. Salazar has been chosen for as “the booby prize of the Cabinet.”

As Mr. Obama introduced Mr. Salazar and Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor tapped to be secretary of agriculture, at a press conference Wednesday in Chicago, he said their responsibility would be to balance the protection of farms and public lands against the need to find new sources of energy.

“It’s time for a new kind of leadership in Washington that’s committed to using our lands in a responsible way to benefit all our families,” Mr. Obama said. “That means ensuring that even as we are promoting development where it makes sense, we are also fulfilling our obligation to protect our national treasures.”

Mr. Salazar, wearing his customary ten-gallon hat and bolo tie, said that his job entails helping the nation address climate change through a “moon shot” on energy independence. But that would include not just the development of “green” energy sources like wind power, but also the continued domestic development of coal, oil and natural gas, fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gases when they are burned.

Environmental advocates offered mixed reviews of Mr. Salazar, 53, a first-term Democratic senator who served as head of Colorado’s natural resources department and as the state’s attorney general. Mr. Salazar was not the first choice of environmentalists, who openly pushed the appointment of Representative Raul Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, who has a strong record as a conservationist.

Oil and mining interests praised Mr. Salazar’s performance as a state official and as a senator, saying that he was not doctrinaire about the use of public lands. “Nothing in his record suggests he’s an ideologue,” said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. “Here’s a man who understands the issues, is open-minded and can see at least two sides of an issue.”

Mr. Popovich noted approvingly that Mr. Salazar had tried to engineer a deal in the Senate allowing mining companies and others to reclaim abandoned mines without fear of lawsuits. (The legislation is pending.) He has also supported robust research on technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants, something the coal industry favors.

He also backed a compromise that would let oil companies drill for natural gas in limited parts of the Roan Plateau in northwestern Colorado, a plan that most environmental advocates opposed.

Mr. Salazar is a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up on a ranch near the New Mexico border. He has been a farmer, lawyer and small-business man as well as a public servant.

Pam Kiely, program director at Environment Colorado, said Mr. Salazar had been a champion of wilderness protection and of strong water quality laws, and had raised questions about the environmental costs of oil shale development, a subject of great controversy in the Mountain West. She said he had not spoken out forcefully against oil and gas development in millions of acres of national forests and roadless areas.

“We hope he continues to play a role in ensuring that, as we develop our mineral rights in these incredibly sensitive areas, we require industry to put in place safeguards that protect our health, environment, water and air quality,” Ms. Kiely said.

Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said in a statement that Mr. Salazar understood that energy security can be achieved only by making use of all domestic energy sources, including those found on and under public lands.

“We are pleased that the president-elect has chosen someone who understands that there is a direct connection between federal lands and access to affordable, clean natural gas,” Mr. Smith said.

While industry officials praised his moderation, Mr. Salazar drew harsh criticism from some environmentalists.

“He is a right-of-center Democrat who often favors industry and big agriculture in battles over global warming, fuel efficiency and endangered species,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of Center for Biological Diversity, which tracks endangered species and habitat issues. “He is very unlikely to bring significant change to the scandal-plagued Department of Interior. It’s a very disappointing choice for a presidency which promised visionary change.”

Daniel R. Patterson, formerly an official of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and now southwest regional director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group, said that Mr. Salazar has justifiably become the most controversial of Mr. Obama’s cabinet appointees.

“Salazar has a disturbingly weak conservation record, particularly on energy development, global warming, endangered wildlife and protecting scientific integrity,” said Mr. Patterson, who was elected last month to the Arizona House of Representatives from Tucson and who supports fellow Arizonan Mr. Grijalva for the Interior job. “It’s no surprise oil and gas, mining, agribusiness and other polluting industries that have dominated Interior are supporting rancher Salazar — he’s their friend.”

Even as Mr. Salazar navigates the department’s tricky political cross-currents, he must also deal with significant internal management challenges. Members of Congress and outside groups are calling for review of dozens of decisions made under the Bush administration on endangered species and oil and gas leasing. The senior management ranks of the department have been depleted by departures of demoralized career employees.

And the agency’s computer systems are badly in need of repair, after millions of dollars have been spent on systems that have not worked, according to several internal reports.

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PETER SLEVIN, The Washington Post, August 18, 2008

DENVER — When Colorado voters were deciding whether to require that 10% of the state’s electricity come from renewable fuels, the state’s largest utility fought the proposal, warning that any shift from coal and natural gas would be costly, uncertain and unwise.

Then a funny thing happened. The ballot initiative passed, and Xcel Energy met the requirement eight years ahead of schedule. And at the government’s urging, its executives quickly agreed to double the target, to 2%.

In Colorado — a state historically known for natural gas and fights over drilling — wind and solar power are fast becoming prominent parts of the energy mix. Wind capacity has quadrupled in the past 18 months, according to Gov. Bill Ritter (D), and Xcel has become the largest provider of wind power in the nation.

The politics and economics of energy are shifting here in ways that foretell debates across the country as states create renewable-energy mandates and the federal government moves toward limiting carbon emissions. One advocate calls Colorado “ground zero” for the looming battle over energy.

Despite a continuing boom, oil and gas companies here are on the defensive. They are spending heavily as they try to prevent the repeal of as much as $300 million in annual tax breaks that would be shifted to investment in renewables and other projects.

The industry, already facing a rebellion among some longtime supporters angered by its toll on the environment, also finds itself in a fight against new regulations designed to protect wildlife and public health from the vast expansion in drilling. Beyond the merits, the proposals reflect the strengthened hand of environmentalists and their friends who feel that the fossil-fuel companies have held sway too long.

“Now is a terrific time for renewables to launch. I hope they get all the capital they need, and all the great minds and talent. But I don’t want it to come at the expense of the oil and gas industry,” said Meg Collins, president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. “As goes Colorado, so goes the West, as far as this energy policy debate.”

State leaders are thrilled with the economic benefits that have come with the hundreds of new research and manufacturing jobs in pursuit of alternative power. Yet the fledgling renewables industry is also facing challenges, from a desire for tax credits of its own to a need for a stronger transmission grid that will make power more portable.

“The future in Colorado is building wind farms in wheat fields,” said Ritter, a former Denver prosecutor, recalling the 2006 campaign pitch that helped carry him into the governor’s office. “Quite frankly, it’s how we should have been thinking for 10 years.”

Ten years ago, Xcel began offering wind-generated electricity, but it was a niche market for eco-conscious customers willing to pay extra. That changed in a significant way after 2004, when Xcel lost the referendum fight.

After legislative efforts failed, proponents of renewable energy turned to the ballot that year. The initiative, Amendment 37, required the state’s biggest utilities to generate 10% of their electricity from renewable sources. Advocates found themselves facing off against Xcel, which said it feared for its bottom line.

“We ended up opposing that amendment. In retrospect, I wish we hadn’t,” said Frank Prager, Xcel’s vice president for environmental policy. He said utility companies are inherently conservative, yet find themselves facing a transformation in an industry that, as he put it, has changed little since Thomas Edison’s time.

Voters rejected the utility industry’s arguments and approved the measure, making Colorado the first state to mandate renewable-energy use at the ballot box. Today, legislatures in more than 25 states have set prescribed levels, known formally as “renewable portfolio standards.”

“It was one of those cases where the public was ahead of the politicians,” said Tom Plant, Ritter’s top energy strategist.

Once Xcel executives began to come to terms with the new rules, they discovered that federal tax credits made wind power affordable, especially in relation to rising natural gas prices. The cost of wind power is relatively constant and provides a hedge against future emissions regulation, such as the cap-and-trade approach favored by presidential candidates Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R).

“It was good for the system,” Xcel’s Prager said, referring to the utility’s mix of energy sources, “and it was good for the customer.”

By the end of 2007, Xcel had met Amendment 37’s goal and endorsed Ritter’s request to double it to 20% by 2020. That measure passed the Colorado legislature easily: With the utility on board and public sentiment clear, the bill collected 50 sponsors in the 65-member House.

Executives at publicly traded Xcel stress their twin desires to make money and to insulate the company from the risks of unproven technology. As Prager put it during an interview in the company’s downtown Denver headquarters: “It’s absolutely essential that the state offer us something that makes it worth our while to be green.”

Amendment 37 allows utilities to collect a fee from customers to invest in renewable fuels; it averages $12.72 a year for a typical homeowner with a monthly bill of $73. When the renewables goal doubled last year, so did the fee. Prager said the fee has provided Xcel $37.6 million between March 2006 and July 2008 for capital investment in wind and solar.

Colorado is adding wind-power capacity at a higher rate than any other state, its hundreds of turbines delivering one gigawatt of generating power at the end of 2007. That is triple the total of 12 months earlier. Six states produce more than one gigawatt with wind, with Texas far in front and California second.

Solar power remains a small part of the equation in Colorado, in part because concentrated solar generation is expensive. Xcel is sponsoring an 80-acre field of photovoltaic panels in the San Luis Valley, a project expected to provide 8.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1,500 homes. But only 4% of Xcel’s renewable megawattage is required to come from solar.

Meanwhile, Xcel’s latest plan, filed with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, calls for retiring two of its aging coal-fired power generators.

“We’ve reached this critical point where we’re seeing the deployment of these technologies accelerate,” said John Nielsen, an energy analyst with the nonprofit environmental group Western Resource Advocates. “There was slow progress over the last decade, and you’re now seeing this tipping point.”

Among the signs is the arrival of Vestas, a Danish wind turbine company, which announced Friday the construction of two more manufacturing plants and 1,350 new jobs, bringing the company’s total in Colorado to 2,450. Conoco Phillips announced this year that it will locate its alternative-fuels research operation in the state. The Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory is adding 100 jobs.

Colorado’s growing political and economic commitment to renewables is causing fear in the oil and gas industry, which is fighting to keep its tax breaks and its influence over state rulemaking.

“We’re not feeling very cherished,” said Collins, whose oil and gas association represents more than 30 companies. The group objects to an initiative on the ballot in November; it would eliminate the industry’s 87.5% property tax exemption, estimated to cost the state treasury $230 million to $320 million a year.

If the ballot rule passes, the tax money will be channeled to renewable fuels, wildlife conservation and education. The industry also objects to proposed rules that would require greater public health and environmental protection in areas where drilling takes place.

“It could have been done in a different way, and things wouldn’t have gotten so heated,” Collins said.

Alice Madden, the Democratic majority leader in the Colorado House, looks at the oil and gas industry today and recalls Xcel before the passage of Amendment 37. She has little sympathy for Collins’s arguments, especially at a time when oil and gas profits are soaring.

“It’s Chicken Little all over again: ‘The sky is going to fall,’ ” said Madden, who also chairs Western Progress, an advocacy group. “The oil and gas companies see the writing on the wall, the shift to renewables. They want to make as much money as they can, right now.”

Looking ahead, supporters of alternative fuels are counting on securing some advantages their fossil-fuel predecessors have enjoyed. One request is the renewal of a federal tax credit set to expire this year. Another, Prager said, is “some clear rules on the national level, especially on climate policy.”

With 34,000 active gas wells in Colorado and 28 new permits issued each day, there is no chance that the oil and gas industry will fade away soon. And, as powerfully as the wind blows and the sun shines, the transmission grid for renewable energy is limited and the strength of the current is unsure.

“Unlike a coal plant or a gas plant,” Prager said, “you can’t flip a switch and make the wind blow.”

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