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 of the important resources of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are preserved at the same time that any exploration and production would take place."

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.

Susan Parker

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