Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement that he's stepping down at the end of March leaves his successor to grapple with contentious issues including drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska and fracking for natural gas and oil on public lands.
Names mentioned as potential replacements include outgoing Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, former North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan and former Govs. Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming and Bill Ritter of Colorado. Environmental groups are pushing for Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva to get the job.
The president has taken some heat in recent days for the fact his three recent Cabinet picks have all been white males. Salazar is the last remaining Latino in the Cabinet. A coalition of 238 conservation, Latino, recreation, animal welfare, religious, labor, youth, business and women's groups are pushing for Grijalva to replace him.
Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, said last Wednesday he is leaving the Cabinet position after four years to return his home state. "Colorado is and will always be my home. I look forward to returning to my family and Colorado after eight years in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Salazar had an eventful term as interior secretary. He responded to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest offshore spill in U.S. history, and imposed a temporary moratorium on offshore drilling permits in the wake of the disaster. Salazar's department came up with new drilling rules and reorganized the scandal-plagued Minerals Management Service, whose oversight of offshore drilling was toothless and discredited by sex, drugs and gifts scandals left over from the previous administration.
President Barack Obama, who has not signaled who might take over as interior secretary, praised Salazar on Wednesday. "In his work to promote renewable energy projects on our public lands and increase the development of oil and gas production, Ken has ensured that the department's decisions are driven by the best science and promote the highest safety standards," Obama said in a written statement.
The six-month moratorium after BP's disaster angered some members of Congress and the oil industry, which complains it's still too hard to drill. Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter said in a written statement Wednesday that it's "past time for him to step down."
But Salazar also has clashed with environmental groups, particularly over his backing of Shell's efforts to drill for oil in Arctic waters off Alaska. Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby in November called the Arctic permitting "a model of how offshore permitting could and should work."
The new secretary will be overseer of 500 million acres of public land and a department with 70,000 employees and responsibilities including endangered species, national parks and Native American affairs.
Gregoire, whose term as Washington's governor ended last Wednesday, has long been mentioned as a potential replacement for Salazar. Gregoire is close with Obama and Indian tribes and is a big backer of alternative energy, national parks and tourism.
"The tradition is to go to somebody from the West -- I'm not surprised at all that she's in the mix and I think she'd be a fine pick," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who follows presidential appointments closely. "She's been a very successful governor of an important state and has wrestled with issues involving public land in her state. It seems to me she presents a pretty strong profile."