Referring to herself as both a “conservationist and aconservative,” Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton walked a finetightrope yesterday in an effort to persuade her Senate Republicanand Democratic inquisitors that, despite the controversysurrounding her nomination, she is the best choice for the job.

Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources didn’trequire much convincing, but several Democrats were openlytroubled. Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, the senior Republican onthe panel, was by far her biggest supporter. That’s because, inNorton, he’s finally got someone in the Interior Department who haspromised to work with Congress if it should vote to open up theArctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to environmentallyresponsible exploration and production activity.

Both Norton and President-elect George W. Bush are on recordsupporting drilling in ANWR. Few know, however, “you [Norton] northe president has the authority to open up this area,” Murkowskisaid, adding that only Congress can do this. Interior’s role, hesaid, would be to provide Congress with the information to make an”informed decision” about how to carry out drilling in anenvironmentally friendly manner.

He further quizzed Norton, a former attorney general forColorado, about whether she would help to expedite permitting forthe construction of a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower48 states. She conceded she knew little about the project, butvowed to “work with you to learn more about” it.

The Republican senators and others did their best Thursday todefuse the controversy plaguing her nomination by painting theenvironmentalists who opposed her as “extremists.” Colorado Gov.Bill Owens, who introduced her, sounded a cautionary note to thecommittee: “I hope we don’t take this fine person and tear herapart.”

Although her nomination has been “tarred with innuendo andbrushed with misinterpretation,” Murkowski called her an”outstanding” choice to oversee the Department of Interior. Ifconfirmed by the full Senate, she would be the first woman to headup the agency.

Norton’s primary job will be to achieve some “balance” betweenthe interests of the environment and industry, which Murkowskicontends is “dramatically out of proportion” at this point. Hebelieves this imbalance is largely responsible for the currentcrisis in California, “where the lights are out.”

But the Democrat senators were troubled by Norton’s nomination.”I do have doubts about some of the policies she has promoted,”especially those where she has championed individual interests overthose of the environment, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman ((D-NM), whochaired the confirmation hearing.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) called for the real Gale Norton toplease stand up. There seems to be “two different types of GaleNortons,” he said, one who is being painted as thoughtful andmoderate, and a second who is said to care little about theenvironment and thinks on the fringes. “We need to separate factfrom fiction.”

Like other Senate Democrats, Dorgan acknowledged that he hasn’tmade up his mind about her nomination yet. In fact, while theSenate Energy Committee easily voted out the nomination of SpencerAbraham for energy secretary yesterday, some believe the Nortonnomination may not sail through as quickly.

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