Friday, May 21, 2010

Salazar a Flop as Mr. Fix-It

I wasn't keen on Ken Salazar when he represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate. His centrism was a contrivance and media-generated myth, in my opinion -- about as convincing as the cowboy hat he wears as a folksy prop. But his stock has fallen even more with me since he became Interior Secretary. Two recent actions illustrate why.

First, in a demonstration that he's become a consummate Washingtonian, Salazar "reformed" one troubled federal bureaucracy (the Minerals Management Service) by breaking it into 3 baby bureaucracies -- as if a change of logos and letterhead constitutes a meaningful fix. Federal agencies routinely undergo such re-naming rituals in an effort to scrub away the stain of scandal, failure or irrelevance. I can't think of one such reinvention that resulted in any real transformation.

One classic example of this was the Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal creation with a laudable mission that should have shut down years ago, declaring "mission accomplished," but which lives on today as the Rural Utilities Service. The change was made in 1994, when the original name had become such a laughably obvious anachronism.

Even more disingenuous is Salazar's plan to reduce the number of energy leasing disputes by preemptively capitulating to the zero-drilling lobby. By declining to put thousands of potential leases up for bid, and removing huge new swaths of federal land from responsible energy development, and smothering the process under a new blanket of pre-lease "reviews," Salazar will succeed in quelling controversy and reducing legal challenges. Fewer leases, fewer protests, after all. But he'll also succeed in creating energy scarcity, driving up costs, heaping a new burden on the staggering U.S. economy and increasing U.S. reliance on energy imports.

Instituting these sweeping new changes with no real public process or congressional buy-in already has one state (Utah) threatening legal action. So much for reducing contentiousness and court battles.

A high price will eventually be paid for these Washington-style "fixes" and short-sighted policy changes: the seeds of the next energy crisis are being sown by Salazar today. It almost makes me wish Salazar were still in the Senate, where the damage he could do was limited to voting the wrong way, not doing the wrong things.

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