Ken Salazar, and the uncertainties of his quest for certainty

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"Come on. Won't somebody please ask me about oil and gas leases?"
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says his energy plan will bring more certainty to the way public lands get leased and drilled, but it's hard to say who's paying attention. During a teleconference yesterday to announce the reform package, many of the reporters on the horn were more interested in finding out if Salazar was hoping to replace Bill Ritter as governor of Colorado.

Salazar punted those questions, but expectations that he'll run seem to be increasing by the hour. You have to wonder whether the Secretary, who's been on the job less than a year, will stick around Washington to see how his reforms work out. Still, the long-awaited leasing policies represent a fundamental shift in one of the most critical government agencies, away from business as usual with energy companies and toward a more rational, albeit more cumbersome, approach to resource development.

The previous administration, Salazar noted caustically, treated public lands as a "candy store" for the energy business. There was a rush to award leases in remote areas, throwing into confusion proposed wilderness designations and inviting litigation. By mandating more up-front review and encouraging leasing adjacent to already developed parcels, the DOI hopes to ultimately see more actual production and fewer lawsuits.

Critics in the industry -- and GOP quick-draws like Josh Penry -- are already denouncing the plan, describing it as further stalling tactics by the Obama administration. But it's refreshing to find any government entity seeking more, rather than less, public input, and actually getting Bureau of Land Management field managers, who actually know the lands at stake, more involved in the process. It's a sharp contrast to the secrecy and paranoia at BLM in the Bush years.

But will this process actually bring energy producers and investors more certainty? That's as big an unknown as Salazar's gubernatorial plans. BLM director Bob Abbey indicated that certain existing lease areas may deserve a "second look" under the plan, especially if there's ongoing conflicts over wildlife, community concerns and so on. The Roan Plateau leases, offered up by Bush over Senator Salazar's stringent protests and since bogged down in lawsuits, would seem to be one candidate for a second look.

Even if the Secretary turns out to be a candidate himself.

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