Salazar talks energy, climate change, the future at ag forum

Feb 22, 2013

The future and the need for innovation in agriculture was the topic of the day in Denver. The Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture saw many political names speak, though not all of them spoke specifically about agriculture despite the title.

The Forum was held Thursday, Feb. 14 in Denver, CO, and focused on the need for innovation in the future of U.S. agriculture. Despite that, headlining speaker U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spoke heavily about topics not directly agricultural in nature, specifically the dedication to energy production on public lands and the effects of climate change.

“The agricultural community continues to face challenges but through innovation and productive dialogue, we hope to meet these challenges head-on to feed a growing world population,” said Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar—brother to Ken Salazar—in his introductory speech to the assembled representatives of Colorado’s agricultural concerns.

When the podium was turned over to Secretary Salazar, he continued his brother’s emphasis on the challenges faced by rural America but took the conversation in a different direction. His was one decidedly focused on energy more so than agriculture.

“When we speak about rural America,” he said of himself and his fellows in Washington, “we discuss the importance of rural America for what it does for our nation in terms of food security for our country, and in terms of the energy security for the future of the U.S., and in terms of the heritage and the values that you all set as an example for the rest of the world to follow.”

Secretary Salazar went on to expound on the history of his tenure as the secretary of the Interior, relative to the president’s energy goals. The three primary “underpinnings to the overall agenda on the energy future of the U.S.” were listed out as jobs and the economy, energy security, and environmental security.

The discussion of jobs and the economy was host to numerous statistics regarding job growth/creation of the past four years and Secretary Salazar gave examples of jobs created by new energy fields such as the solar farms on the border of California and Nevada. Where he discussed innovation directly, it was related to the issue of renewable energy.

“We are proud that in the last four years we have doubled the amount of renewable energy that is being produced across the United States of America. We’ve found a way to harness the power of the wind and capture the power of the sun and to develop geothermal projects around the country.”

The crossover of energy to one of the biggest issues in ranching—public lands— got a lot of attention from both Secretary Salazar and audience members. During his speech, Secretary Salazar mentioned the efforts of the current administration to open up public lands to energy interests.

“We have opened up millions of acres of public lands, including places like Colorado, for the production of oil and natural gas,” he said. He also made a point to explain how, even several years following the Bushera Energy Policy Act of 2005 which “embraced renewable energy,” there had been no permitted renewable energy projects on public lands.

“But four years later, by the end of 2012, we had permitted 10,000 megawatts of power from solar, from wind, and geothermal on the public lands of America,” he said.

In a break-out question and answer session with media representatives, the issue of public lands and multiple use was a key topic. When asked his vision of the future of multiple use of public lands in the west, Secretary Salazar repeated its importance and the current administration’s dedication to supporting it.

“We’ve seen millions of acres of our public lands used for oil and gas, but that doesn’t mean that we’re shutting out other opportunities for public lands as well.”

However, even in the fullness of his relatively long answer, he did not mention ranching interests, but instead emphasized the value of recreational use such as hunting and fishing to things like conservation efforts and job creation.

When pushed more specifically on the topic of oil and gas on public lands, Secretary Salazar made a point to highlight the improvements made under the current administration.

“The fact is we’re doing a much better job now with our public lands being used for oil and gas exploration and production in the U.S. in the last four years. Prior to my time with the Department of the Interior, it was essentially a laissez faire approach to public lands. Drill wherever you can find a drop of oil even if you’re right next to a national park or right next to a river system.”

He said today, however, many of the leaders in the oil and natural gas field recognize the need for environmentally-minded best practices while still supporting job growth.

“The president’s view and my view has been, and continues to be, that we need to produce oil and natural gas in a safe way and in a way that safeguards the environment. We have been working for a long time on proposed rules for the BLM and the state that will bring that issue into a balance that allows oil and gas production to take place and allows hydraulic fracking to take place, and ensures American citizens can have confidence that we are not doing something that will come back to the water supply or in a negative way impact the environment.”

Water and climate change

Just as Secretary Salazar focused on energy through the segues of the interests of rural America and public lands, he discussed climate change through the lens of water concerns.

“No matter what you may hear from some people—and quite frankly, some people who are in this room—our climate is in fact warming,” he said bluntly to the mixed reactions of the Governor’s Forum audience. “And we are seeing the kinds of droughts and other events around our world that tell us that we are dealing with a real issue, and we must get ahead of it.”

Secretary Salazar selected a very home-hitting example about water to his Colorado audience. He told about how his WaterS- MART (Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow) program has projected the Colorado River will experience a 10-20 percent decline in precipitation in the next three to four decades.

“So let’s just take the midpoint and make it 15 percent decline to a river that is already over-allocated by 1.5 million acre feet.

So if you take another 1.5 million acre feet? What does it mean for agriculture? What does that mean for all the municipalities that depend on it? What does it mean for a place which produces probably about a third of the vegetables throughout the United States of America?

“What does it mean? It means we need to get ahead of that, recognizing that those water shortages are coming.”

In the question and answer session following his speech, Secretary Salazar was questioned on the issues of water. He gave an example of water-related efforts by again referencing his WaterSMART program.

“We have, through efficiency efforts working with our partners along the many river systems in the western part of the U.S., been able to conserve over 600,000 acre feet of water. That’s a very huge amount of water we conserved.”

He continued with the frame of the water issues of the future being a matter of climate change.

“When I speak to major groups… I see Democrats and I see Republicans who are very much recognizing that climate change requires us to take some action. It’s not a Democrat or Republican agenda, and I think that’s one thing that water users understand.

“At the end of the day we’re going to have to manage our future for a more limited water supply in the southwestern part of the U.S. The kind of changes we need can, in fact, be made with management initiatives.”

The future

No summit on the topic of innovation would be complete without questions about the future. Secretary Salazar got several questions regarding his immediate future, specifically. The matter of his successor drew some attention.

Towards the end of March, Secretary Salazar will be succeeded in the role of secretary of the Interior by Sally Jewell. Jewell is currently CEO of outdoors outfitter/supply company REI (Recreation Equipment, Inc.) and was awarded the 2009 Rachel Carson Award for conservation by the National Audubon Society.

Speaking of his successor, Secretary Salazar said:

“Sally Jewel is an outstanding choice by the president to run the Department of the Interior. For about 10 years she was a leader in job creation and has led the outdoor recreation industry. She has been one of the key leaders working closely with the president and with me on the America’s Great Outdoors agenda. I think she’s an outstanding choice and she’ll do a great job.”

When asked if he planned to return to politics once he retires back to Colorado, Secretary Salazar chuckled.

“Right now my goal is simply to do as good a job as I can. What happens after that, I don’t know.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor