WASHINGTON – New Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who is nursing a broken foot, joked Wednesday that he was eager to start "running" the agency, then playfully asked President Bush for more money.
"I welcome your interest and your support," Kempthorne said at a ceremonial swearing-in that Bush hosted on the South Lawn. "Can I assume, therefore, that the budget for the Department of Interior will soon be as big as the Department of Defense?"
Kempthorne, 54, succeeds Gale Norton as steward of one-fifth of the nation's land and head of an agency with a $9 billion budget and 80,000 employees.
Besides overseeing 390 national parks and 565 wildlife refuges, he faces a slate of thorny issues — rising traffic and pollution at national parks, scarce water supplies in the West, protection of endangered species and mismanaged Indian trust accounts.
The two-term Idaho governor and former Republican senator was confirmed by the Senate late last month on a voice vote.
Kempthorne told senators he was eager to expand oil and gas development on public lands and waters that already produce 30 percent of the nation's domestic supply of energy.
Eight Democratic senators, including Sen. Ben Nelson (news, bio, voting record) of Florida, registered their opposition. Nelson opposes the Bush administration's proposed lease sale of 3.6 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico off the Alabama and Florida coasts.
Bush said Kempthorne would pursue energy development that would treat the environment responsibly.
"As we work to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy, he will make sure that any exploration on federal lands and federal waters is done in an environmentally sensitive way," Bush said.