Thomas Kleppe, who served as secretary of the Interior under President Ford and approved the sale of oil and gas drilling rights off the Southern California coast, died Friday at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 87 and had Alzheimer’s disease.
Kleppe, who had served two terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican from North Dakota, was an unexpected choice for the job as the nation’s top guardian of the environment. Described in a Washington Post article as “a super glad-hander,” Kleppe was director of the Small Business Administration when Ford nominated him in 1975.
Opponents, including Arizona Rep. Morris Udall, a Democrat, considered him too close to the oil industry and criticized his tenure at the SBA, which had been accused of mismanagement and hiring political loyalists.
But Kleppe was confirmed by a voice vote and made key environmental decisions during his 15 months as secretary.
Much to the disappointment of environmentalists, one of his first moves was signing off on the sale of oil and gas drilling rights off the Southern California coast. (The decision opened the sale of four large areas stretching from Point Conception to Dana Point. Santa Monica Bay was initially exempt from the sale.)
On Jan. 19, 1977, one day before he left office, Kleppe proposed legislation to permit private companies to develop oil and natural gas fields on Alaska’s North Slope.
A month later, a federal judge ruled that Kleppe had violated federal environmental laws in an earlier decision to permit oil companies to lease offshore properties in the Atlantic.
Still, Kleppe’s record was hardly one-sided. In one of his most controversial rulings, he announced that lead pellets no longer could be used in shotgun shells for hunting waterfowl.
The decision angered hunters, but it saved about 2 million ducks a year from dying after ingesting the lead shots.
In April 1976, Kleppe blocked the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the New River in North Carolina, preserving the scenic mountain waterway and nearly 1,000 homes.
Thomas Savig Kleppe was born July 1, 1919, in Kintyre, N.D., and grew up on his family’s farm. He attended Valley City State University in North Dakota for a year.
He entered banking in Bismarck, N.D., then served as an Army warrant officer during World War II. In 1946, he joined Gold Seal Co., a Bismarck manufacturer of household cleaning products, and rose from bookkeeper to company president.
He served as mayor of Bismarck from 1950 to 1954, making him one of the nation’s youngest mayors.
In 1964, Kleppe ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, losing to Democratic Sen. Quentin Burdick. Two years later, Kleppe was elected to the House and served two terms. He was one of the richest members of Congress at the time, with a net worth of $3.5 million in 1969.
Kleppe resigned from the House in 1971 after completing his second term to make a second run for the Senate but again lost to Burdick.
After serving as Interior secretary, Kleppe taught at the University of Wyoming, worked as a consultant and served on the boards of directors of several institutions.
His first wife, Frieda Kleppe, died in 1957.
Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Glendora Kleppe of Bethesda; two children from his first marriage; two daughters from his second marriage; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.