Senate Panel to Vote on Interior Nominee This Week
Referring to herself as both a "conservationist and a
conservative," Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton walked a
tightrope last week in an effort to persuade her Senate Republican
and Democratic inquisitors that, despite the heated controversy
surrounding her nomination, she is the best choice for the job.
Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources didn't
require much convincing, but several Democrats were concerned about
Norton's apparent history of promoting individual and business
interests over those of the environment, and questioned whether she
would uphold existing laws of the Department of Interior. Her
professed support for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
(ANWR) to oil and gas exploration and production activity also
raised some red flags.
At the end of the hearing, which spanned two days, the
Democratic members appeared satisfied with Norton's answers, a
committee spokeswoman said, adding that she didn't expect any
opposition to her nomination when the committee votes on it early
this week. There could be some opposition, however, when the
nomination goes to the Senate floor this week.
Responding to Democrat critics, Norton said she saw her job as
secretary as an opportunity for "bipartisan environmental
cooperation and leadership," and assured the senators that
Interior's existing laws would be "fully enforced." However, she
noted, "at this point, I am not sure where we need to depart from
[the] past administration" policies. Norton conceded the process
used by the Clinton administration to recently designate 19 park
areas as national monuments, which places them off-limits to any
development, "causes me concern."
Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, the senior Republican on the
panel, was by far her biggest supporter. That's because, in Norton,
he finally will get someone in the Interior Department who has
promised to work with Congress if it should move to open up ANWR to
environmentally responsible exploration and production activity.
While Norton has been strongly criticized for her views on ANWR,
Murkowski noted that few realize that neither "you [Norton] nor the
president has the authority to open up this area." That authority
rests with Congress, he said.
"I view the role of the Department of Interior as helping
provide the information to this Congress so that you can make an
informed decision" about whether or not to open the refuge to oil
and gas drilling, she said.
If Congress should open up ANWR, "I will certainly follow any
laws that are passed to be sure that.protection of the important
resources of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are preserved at
the same time that any exploration and production would take
Murkowski further quizzed Norton, a former attorney general for
Colorado, about whether she would help to expedite permitting for
the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower
48 states. "I'm aware of the important need for natural gas not
just because our economy is expanding.but also because natural gas
is seen as one of the ways of having the cleanest supply of energy.
I will look forward to working with you to learn more about" the
pipeline project, she said.
The Republican senators and others did their best last Thursday
to defuse the controversy plaguing her nomination by painting the
environmentalists who opposed her as "extremists." Greenpeace, for
example, in a show of opposition to Norton's nomination, last week
draped a large banner across the entrance of the Interior building
that read: "Our Land, Not Oil Land."
Although her nomination has been "tarred with innuendo and
brushed with misinterpretation," Murkowski called her an
"outstanding" choice to oversee the Department of Interior.
Norton's primary job will be to achieve some "balance" between the
interests of the environment and industry, which Murkowski contends
is "dramatically out of proportion" at this point. He believes this
imbalance is largely responsible for the current crisis in
California, "where the lights are out."
Norton, who would be the first woman to head up Interior,
agreed. "The idea that people in California this very day are
facing serious shortages of energy is another great cause of
concern. We'll have to pull together all of our resources and work
across departmental lines to find ways of addressing
those...issues," she said.