Salazar may become fall guy in oil spill debacle 

With the BP oil spill getting worse and government's oversight of the industry increasingly under scrutiny, calls for the ouster of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar seemed inevitable.

Salazar, a former senator from Colorado, is under siege from several sides. Dozens of environmental groups are demanding his firing for failing to adequately protect the ocean from Big Oil.

Pressure from the right followed Salazar's recent push to impose tougher leasing rules and cancel a series of planned drilling operations in Alaska and elsewhere.

Oil interests are unhappy with new regulatory and oversight reforms in his department, and lawmakers have hauled him up to Capitol Hill to defend the disaster response and his own leadership.

"We have made very significant reforms," Salazar told a House committee. "And we did inherit what essentially ... a department that had been significantly eroded through a number of different means, including budget, for many years."

On liberal blogs, Salazar is suffering unfortunate comparisons to Mike Brown, the pilloried former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And President Obama took two shots at Salazar in last week's White House press conference, while sidestepping a question about whether Salazar's job is safe.

All the same, the White House appears to be standing behind Salazar, a low-key bureaucrat who before his disaster was best known as the Cabinet member favoring Stetsons and bolo ties.

Frank Maisano, an energy policy expert at Bracewell & Giuliani, said the secretary appears safe -- for now.

"I don't think so, but you never know," Maisano said when asked if Salazar is in trouble. "If it continues to get hotter in the public's eye and little progress is visible, who knows who could be next."

So far, the highest-profile official to depart in the wake of the spill has been Elizabeth Birnbaum, former head of the Minerals Management Services at Interior.

Obama, after criticizing Salazar for moving too slowly to reform MMS and lamenting Salazar's colorful reference to keeping a "boot on the throat" of BP, this week appeared to backtrack and express support for the embattled secretary.

Open speculation about whether Salazar should go has made it to cable news, where Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been critical of the BP spill response, said he believes the critical issues predate Salazar's leadership.

"Yes, he should stay on the job but I think this goes back to the drill, baby, drill era of the Bush administration," Markey said on CNN.

For his part, Salazar's stake in disaster response has thrust him into a more high-profile role that he might have expected when Obama tapped him to lead the obscure, non-glamorous Interior Department.

Salazar, who joined the administration in 2009, served in the Senate starting in 2004. Before that, Salazar was attorney general in Colorado and also worked in private practice as an environmental lawyer.

A plain-spoken Westerner, Salazar grew up on a family ranch that had no electricity.

"Few are better equipped to meet the energy and natural resource challenges we face in the 21st century," Obama said in nominating Salazar in December 2008.

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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