CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday named former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to head the Agriculture Department and Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to become interior secretary, saying they would help further his goal of energy independence for the country.
Calling the two “guardians of the American landscape.” Obama told a news conference they would help to spearhead efforts to use less imported oil while expanding use of renewable energy such as biofuels.
The selections moved Obama closer to his goal of completing most of his Cabinet selections before he leaves on Saturday for a vacation in Hawaii, where he grew up.
A few hours after the announcements on Vilsack and Salazar, a senior Democrat told Reuters that Rep. Ray LaHood, a Republican, had been offered the job of transportation secretary.
The pick would help Obama, a Democrat, fulfill a pledge to include members of the opposing party in the top tier of his incoming administration. Obama has already announced that he plans to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has served under several Republican presidents, in his current job.
LaHood, who hails from Obama’s home state of Illinois and is said to have a rapport with the president-elect, is expected to accept the Cabinet position, the Democratic official said.
Salazar is a first-term senator from Colorado and Vilsack was a popular two-term governor of Iowa, a leading farm and ethanol-producing state.
“I will do all I can to reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil,” said Salazar, who will take over an agency that handles leases of federal land for oil drilling along with other issues including national parks.
Vilsack said he would try to improve farm income in the face of the U.S. recession and to put healthier food into public nutrition programs.
Obama supports a $250,000 a year “hard cap” on farm subsidies with no exemption, a tightening of rules that could save $100 million to $200 million a year. He says he would encourage continued rural leadership in renewable energy.
A backer of renewable fuels, Vilsack ran for the Democratic presidential nomination for three months before withdrawing in February 2007 and supporting Hillary Clinton.
Salazar, who once practiced as an environmental lawyer, would make decisions on offshore oil and gas drilling as head of the Interior Department, which handles energy leases for federal land as well as national parks and other issues.
Both appointments require confirmation by the Senate, where Democrats have a majority.
As senator, Salazar criticized the Interior Department’s proposal under President George W. Bush to rush the sale of commercial oil shale leases. Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing organic matter from which oil may be produced. Though oil shale production is not yet commercially viable, companies are interested in tapping it because the United States has an abundance of it.
Salazar supported a one year moratorium on oil shale production and said that the government must answer questions about how oil shale production will impact western states and proceed carefully toward commercial development.
He also attempted to block the sale of oil and gas leases on Roan Plateau in Colorado, instead pushing to gradually phase in lease sales in the environmentally sensitive area.
Immediately after introducing his choices and opening the news conference to questions, Obama was asked about his aides contacts with disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Obama’s team has sought to distance him from a developing scandal in which Blagojevich has been accused of trying to sell off Obama’s vacant Senate seat. Aides have said a review of contacts between Obama’s team and Blagojevich’s office would be released during the Christmas week.
Obama said on Wednesday it was a “little bit frustrating” that he was unable to release the information now but that he was abiding by the request of the U.S. attorney’s office. “There has been a lot of speculation in the press that I would love to correct immediately,” Obama said.
Editing by David Wiessler