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US Interior Secretary Salazar to Step Down by End of March

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WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to announce Wednesday that he plans to step down in coming weeks, bringing the Obama administration one step closer to a total overhaul of its energy team.

Mr. Salazar, 57 years old, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, will leave his post at the end of March and plans to return home to Colorado, an administration official said. The official did not say whether a successor would also be named Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced she plans to leave as well. Salazar and Jackson, along with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, head the trio of agencies responsible for overseeing U.S. energy production and consumption.

Mr. Chu could also announce his departure sometime this year, observers have said.

Under Mr. Salazar's leadership, the Interior Department underwent a major restructuring following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to the spill, an agency within the department--responsible for selling drilling leases as well as ensuring safety--was accused of being too cozy with the oil and natural gas industry and was subsequently broken up into three separate divisions.

With the aim of removing potential conflicts of interest, the restructuring split the tasks of deciding which federal waters would be opened to drilling, enforcing safety rules and collecting billions of dollars of oil royalties. The department also developed new drilling standards.

In the months following the oil spill in 2010, Mr. Salazar's department imposed a six-month ban on offshore oil drilling. The move drew widespread criticism from the oil industry and Gulf Coast lawmakers who said a moratorium would hurt the region even further.

Mr. Salazar appeared on Capitol Hill to defend the administration's move, saying it was crucial to make sure energy companies could operate safely in thousands of feet of water before allowing operations to continue.

Mr. Salazar was also at the center of the election-year squabbles surrounding President Barack Obama's "all of the above" energy policy. Republicans said the Interior Department was limiting oil and natural gas production on U.S.-owned land and water, even as the White House claimed credit for a boost in domestic production.

Analysis of the issue how shown mixed results for energy production on federal regions.

Mr. Salazar, who routinely commented on how much he liked his job, appeared to relish in particular his department's conservation efforts. He logged thousands of hours in states around the country, establishing new national parks and wildlife refuges.

Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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