Some of us are natural Democrats and some of us are natural Republicans. Some of us are neither.  I suggest that a natural Democrat or Republican is someone who is almost always in total agreement with the party and with all of its various alliances; it is someone who could sign the party’s platform every four years as a statement of personal belief.  I’ve never been that person.  There will always be a number of things with which I would disagree.  More importantly there are affiliations with which I could never agree.  In my case I am offended by the all-to-close relationship between the Republican Party and the Christian right.  I am likewise alienated by the seemingly borderless relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party.  Sorry, but I like to think for myself.  If being a member of one of our parties means I have to check my views at the door, perhaps “Independent” is destined to be my permanent affiliation.

Echoing the point with which I began, for some people there’s no conflict at all.  They are perfectly comfortable as Democrats swearing fidelity to organized labor or as Republicans attempting to legislate morality.   Have at it folks, I’m glad you’re happy.  I suspect there are also others who might not necessarily agree with certain positions or affiliations but that nonetheless have decided to accept the bad with the good as a political necessity.  The same holds true for anyone elected to the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate.  If you don’t affiliate with one party or the other, you are nobody: you don’t get committee assignments, you don’t get earmarks, you don’t get squat.  Thus, were a true independent to have been elected a few weeks ago, he/she would have to choose between Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner for Speaker.  What a horrible choice.

This leads me to my real point today.  We have a nominee for Interior Secretary, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, who is a supposed centrist.  So far, so good.  But how centrist can you really be when a major tenet of your party is “environmentalism” and a very major constituency is the the environmental community.  It has been my experience that it is a rare Democrat that can say “no” to environmental groups.  Indeed, it is a rare Northeast Republican who can say “no” to environmental groups.  These groups have got too many supporters in too many Congressional districts who’ve been brainwashed into thinking that what’s right for the environment is what these groups pronounce is what’s right for the environment.  It is all but impossible for a Democrat or Northeast Republican to be able to say “no” to them.  They would be taking a big political risk to do so. 

So now we have Senator Salazar nominated to the position of Interior Secretary.  For more information on Senator Salazara and this appointment, read the Washington Post story today entitled Obama to Name Salazar As Secretary of Interior.  First, don’t get me wrong, this is an outstanding appointment, especially if one considers some of the other candidates that had been discussed.  Congressman Grijalva would have been a disaster.  With Senator Salazar we have someone, as I believe we would have had with John Berry, who will make a sincere effort to balance interests in administering an agency with one of the most difficult mandates of any in government.  He is someone, unlike Grijalva, who will say “no” to environmental groups.  My concern is it won’t be often enough.  It won’t be often enough because as a Democrat Salazar simply won’t have the option of saying “no” as often as he should.  He’ll say “yes, but” or “no, but” a lot.  Everything will be a compromise.

What will get shortchanged in this the country’s energy policy.  It’s my view that there is no other agency of the United States Government that has more influence on this country’s energy policy or, energy prices, than the Interior Department.  This is because it controls so much public land, onshore and offshore, upon which so much of this country’s natural resources reside.  The department’s decisions therefore have a huge impact on the country’s ability to produce its own oil and natural gas.  Environmental groups like to paint the choice that has to be made as between “appeasing oil and natural gas production company interests” vs. “protecting wildlife and the environment”.  That’s not it at all though.  Oil and gas interests are but vehicles for a much larger and more important public interest.  That is the country’s interest in securing a domestic oil and natural gas supply that reduces our dependence on oil produced in other parts of the globe.  For both national security and economic reasons the U.S. can no longer afford, not that it ever could, to import the quantities of oil that we are presently importing.  We just can’t do it any longer.  Thus, the real debate is between “the country’s need for producing oil and natural gas domestically” vs. “protecting wildlife and the environment”.  The line is fuzzier.  It is even fuzzier if you factor in issues such as the environemental risk taken every day as mega-tankers traverse the world’s oceans with cargo that at any moment could result in an environmental disaster of proportions heretofore not experienced, or the lack of environmental safeguards for oil and natural gas drilling in many parts of the world that are standard practice in the United States.  It’s fuzzier too when one considers the economic ramifications of $350-700 billion (depending upon the price of oil) leaving the country every year to pay for this imported oil.  Every decision Interior makes should be made as if there’s an representative from the National Security Council or the Treasury Department in the room as well to make sure those interests are adequately represented.

People will argue that I’m forgetting climate change in this debate.  I’m not.  It is all too real and has to be addressed.  It would be best addressed through a carbon tax that starts to put a premium on the burning of fossil fuels.  (A less transparent and much more complicated alternative to a carbon tax would be institution of a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions into the atmosphere).  Applied to my argument above that we should be producing more oil and natural gas domestically and importing less oil from abroad, a carbon tax would mean that we would begin to discourage the overall use of oil and natural gas and concomitantly increase the overall use of alternative fuels (such as wind and solar).  The place not to engage in the battle between “oil and natural gas” vs. “alternative fuels” is in the field through denying access to public lands for oil and natural gas development.  That battle should be fought with tax policy at a macroeconomic level.  Fighting the battle locally, as environmental groups so like to do, only means, all things being equal, that the country will have to import more oil.  Every barrel of oil not produced in America is a barrel that will have to be imported.   

I want to also close with this observation.  The wildlife and conservation impacts of oil and natural gas development are widely overestimated by most people.  This is because people think of oil and gas development as requiring a far bigger footprint than it does or as a permanent alteration of an often pristine landscape.  It isn’t.  It is but a 20-30 year endeavor on relatively small locations, spread over a large territory and at the end of which remediation is mandated that will return the land to its natural state.  Furthermore, the footprint for oil and gas activity is minute compared to the solar and wind footprint, which are going to be far longer in duration than the 20-30 years for oil and natural gas.   Done correctly there is also no water impact, surface or subsurface, of oil and natural gas production.  Likewise claims about wildlife impacts of oil and natural development are frequently exaggerated.  Technology that limits the footprint of oil and natural gas production by use of directionally drilled wells lessens further all of the negative environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development.

So my bottom line is that Senator Salazar is a great choice.  My best wishes are with him as he takes on one of the toughest jobs in Washington, a job that is tougher for a Democrat centrist who is going to have to say “no” to a critical constituency more often than not if he’s going to do the job demanded of him.