Ken Salazar, the Obama administration’s first-term interior secretary, took a job at an industry law and lobbying firm just months after leaving office. There, he refashioned himself as an oil champion and avoided disclosing the companies that paid him to lobby.
Now Salazar has a new role: adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
In June, after Biden clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, the campaign added Salazar, 65, to its list of potential transition team recruits. And earlier this month, the former vice president tapped the self-described “12th-generation son of the southwest” to co-chair its Latino engagement committee.
There’s no clear indication yet that the former U.S. senator and attorney general of Colorado is advising Biden’s policy approach, which includes curbing corporate corruption of the federal government and slashing climate-changing emissions.
But as Biden seeks to draw stark contrasts with President Donald Trump, government watchdogs say Salazar threatens to undermine the campaign’s promises to bring ethics back to Washington, and could help Republicans obscure the Trump administration’s uniquely egregious record of self-dealing and pandering to polluters. They see Salazar as an example of the corporate influence in politics and the constant movement of people between government and industry ― the so-called “swamp” that Trump famously promised to drain before stacking his Cabinet with dozens of former lobbyists and industry insiders.
“Salazar’s lucrative spin through the revolving door from public servant to agent of the fossil fuel industry is no less indefensible when done by an Obama alumnus than when done by a member of Trump’s team,” said Jeff Hauser, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project.
The Revolving Door Project and dozens of other left-leaning organizations sent a letter to the Biden campaign this week urging the Democratic hopeful to avoid potential conflicts of interest by committing to keep industry insiders off his transition team and out of his administration, Politico reported.
Neither Salazar nor the Biden campaign responded to HuffPost’s emailed questions.
Oil Lobbying For Trump-Linked Firm
The Biden proposal slams the Trump administration as “the most corrupt administration in modern history” and accuses it of dismantling the Obama administration’s stringent ethics code. “It is time that we strengthen our lobbyist rules and hold public officials accountable,” the proposal reads.
But Salazar, who also chaired Hillary Clinton’s transition team in 2016, has himself come under fire for perceived ethical shortfalls.
In June 2013, less than two months after stepping down as interior chief, Salazar became a partner at WilmerHale, a D.C-based law and lobbying firm that represented BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and whose clients include several other drilling and mining companies that the Interior Department regulates. At the time, he pledged to abide by federal ethics rules, “walling himself off from matters” he worked on while at the federal agency, the International Business Times reported. That would include being “completely segregated from revenues that come in from BP,” he said.
“Just because Salazar is powerful enough, and our ethics laws so pathetic, that he has avoided triggering ethics rules and norms around 'registered lobbyists’ does not mean his access peddling is healthy.”
While Salazar appears to have kept his promise about BP, in early 2017, he represented Anadarko Petroleum, a since-acquired Texas-based oil and gas giant that owned a 25% stake in BP’s Macondo well and in 2015 was slapped with a $159 million fine for its involvement in the Deepwater disaster.
The legal counsel Salazar provided Anadarko was not related to the Gulf spill, but rather to the explosion of a severed flowline from one of the company’s active wells in Firestone, Colorado, the International Business Times reported after obtaining emails another Anadarko lawyer sent to then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office. The April 2017 blast destroyed a home, killing two people and injuring three others. The company reached a settlement with victims’ families in 2018.
Salazar’s work for Anadarko in Colorado did not violate federal ethics rules, which apply only to former Cabinet officials trying to influence the federal government, not state or local governments. Those rules prohibit political appointees from lobbying federal agencies for two years after leaving government service, and permanently bar lobbying on particular matters they worked on while in government.
Still, good government groups say Salazar’s work for the oil and gas sector and failure to disclose his lobbying work on behalf of Anadarko raise serious concerns. Policy positions aside, he should have been upfront about who’s paying him to lobby, said Tyson Slocum, director of the progressive watchdog group Public Citizen’s energy program.
“You have to understand that the corporate lobbyist revolving door is one of the most troublesome in American politics because when industry can afford to buy a former Cabinet secretary and U.S. senator, you get access and you get results,” Slocum said. “Part of that deal is you get out in front of that by getting out and saying, ‘I’m being paid by this company.’ … That he didn’t do that is really problematic.”
At times, Anadarko benefited from Salazar’s tenure in government. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, Salazar’s Interior Department granted the company a waiver for an offshore drilling project in the Gulf of Mexico, exempting it from conducting a detailed environmental assessment. And in 2012, flanked by Anadarko representatives, Salazar approved the company’s plan to develop more than 3,600 natural gas wells on 163,000 acres in northeast Utah. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a local environmental group, signed off on the project after Anadarko committed to protecting sensitive areas in the White River area.
Salazar’s WilmerHale biography notes his ongoing work on energy and natural resource issues and says that as interior chief, he “led the nation’s efforts to develop and implement the framework for America’s energy independence,” including overseeing development of fossil fuels and renewable energy and “overhauling the regulatory oversight of oil and gas exploration and production.”
A 1-page Anadarko fact sheet on hydraulic fracturing includes a glowing quote from Salazar: “Hydraulic fracking is very much a necessary part of the future of natural gas. I would say to everybody that hydraulic fracking is safe.”
WilmerHale has extensive ties to the Trump administration and the Trump family. It represents Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to Politico. And Trump has tapped at least two former WilmerHale attorneys for high-ranking federal positions.
Hauser said Salazar “personifies the soft corruption of what is legal in American politics.”
“Just because Salazar is powerful enough, and our ethics laws so pathetic, that he has avoided triggering ethics rules and norms around ‘registered lobbyists’ does not mean his access peddling is healthy,” he said. “Salazar is a key cog in big fossil fuel’s efforts to push off an adequate policy response to the climate crisis.”
Big Oil’s Ally In The Obama White House
Biden won praise this month from climate activists for his proposal to phase out all carbon-emitting coal and gas power plants by 2035 and direct 40% of federal energy benefits to mostly poor and minority communities who have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution. It marked a significant shift from what he proposed earlier in the primary and tracked with how Democrats have embraced scientifically realistic goals that top party officials dismissed as a progressive “green dream” as recently as last year.
Salazar’s record with the fossil fuel industry isn’t just out of step with the dramatic shift in climate politics over the past two years, amid mounting scientific warnings and the emergence of the Green New Deal movement. Even in 2008, his nomination to head the Interior Department drew environmentalists’ ire. Daniel Patterson, a former official at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, criticized Salazar’s “disturbingly weak conservation record, particularly on energy development, global warming, endangered wildlife and protecting scientific integrity.”
“Obama’s choices for Secretary of Energy and his ‘Climate Change Czar’ indicate a determined willingness to take on global warming,” Kieran Suckling, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said at the time. “That team will be weakened by the addition of Ken Salazar, who has fought against federal action on global warming, against higher fuel efficiency standards, and for increased oil drilling and oil subsidies.”
Sure enough, even as the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out increasingly aggressive regulations on oil and gas, Salazar frequently sided with industry. In 2009, the Interior Department upheld a Bush administration policy prohibiting federal regulators from using the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, despite the key role such pollution played in the perilous decline of polar bears and other species.
In 2010, Salazar exempted BP and dozens of other oil drillers from environmental reviews in the Gulf of Mexico. Roughly a year later, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 workers and causing the largest oil spill in the history of marine drilling. Yet as oil gushed from an underwater well for months, the Interior Department waived environmental reviews for another 26 new offshore drilling projects, at least two of which were requests from BP. Salazar granted a 27th exemption the same day the Interior Department issued a moratorium on offshore drilling.
One month after the spill, Salazar hired Sylvia Baca, a former senior-ranking BP employee, to run Interior’s Minerals Management Service, which oversees the process for granting environmental review exemptions. The Interior Department defended the decision, insisting Baca “has been and is recused from participating personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which BP is or represents a party, for a period of two years following her appointment.”
In 2012, the Interior Department granted Royal Dutch Shell permits to drill in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska, a decision The New York Times described later as a “serious miscalculation” that led to repeated accidents and delays. (The Obama administration once again approved Shell’s drilling permits in 2015.)
Using His Pulpit As A Former Secretary To Push Fossil Fuels
Even after leaving the administration in 2013 to join WilmerHale, Salazar used his pulpit as a former Cabinet secretary to vocally advocate on behalf of the industry he once regulated.
In 2014, while the Obama administration debated permitting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, Salazar threw his weight behind the project ― one Trump has prioritized throughout his term ― saying construction could be “a win-win for energy and the environment.”
“At the end of the day, we are going to be consuming that oil,” Salazar said at an industry conference in Texas. “So is it better for us to get the oil from our good neighbor from the north, or to be bringing it from someplace in the Middle East?”
The comment mirrors one that Trump’s first interior chief, Ryan Zinke, repeated often: that it is better to produce energy in the U.S. under reasonable regulations than to have it be produced overseas with none. Zinke also frequently boasted that the Trump administration favors an “all-of-the-above energy strategy” that includes fossil fuels and renewables. On its website, WilmerHale notes that Salazar was a key figure in “developing and implementing President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy.”
It was hardly his only legacy.
The Obama administration protected more than 550 million acres of federal land and water ― more than any other president in U.S. history. Trump, on the other hand, has worked to weaken safeguards for nearly 35 million acres (nearly 1,000 times more than it has protected), earning the title of the most “anti-nature” president ever, according to a recent analysis from the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
In July 2018, Salazar criticized mounting lawsuits by cities and counties seeking restitution from oil companies for their role in promoting climate denial as climate change now damages infrastructure.
“I don’t agree with those who take those positions into the courts,” Salazar said at the annual Denver luncheon of Colorado Petroleum Council, a division of the national trade group the American Petroleum Institute, according to the industry-funded blog Western Wire.
He dismissed a proposed ballot measure to increase the distance oil and gas wells are required to be from schools and homes as “fundamentally unconstitutional.”
In the years since Obama’s presidency, there’s been a divergence among Obama administration alumni about their legacy on natural gas, Hauser said. His worry is that individuals who do not express remorse about that record at this stage in the fight against climate change will ultimately land key posts in a future Biden administration.
Salazar, he said, is “the type of Democrat that has to be left behind if we’re going to address the climate crisis.”