Referring to herself as both a “conservationist and aconservative,” Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton walked atightrope last week in an effort to persuade her Senate Republicanand Democratic inquisitors that, despite the heated 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 concerned aboutNorton’s apparent history of promoting individual and businessinterests over those of the environment, and questioned whether shewould uphold existing laws of the Department of Interior. Herprofessed support for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge(ANWR) to oil and gas exploration and production activity alsoraised some red flags.

At the end of the hearing, which spanned two days, theDemocratic members appeared satisfied with Norton’s answers, acommittee spokeswoman said, adding that she didn’t expect anyopposition to her nomination when the committee votes on it earlythis week. There could be some opposition, however, when thenomination goes to the Senate floor this week.

Responding to Democrat critics, Norton said she saw her job assecretary as an opportunity for “bipartisan environmentalcooperation and leadership,” and assured the senators thatInterior’s existing laws would be “fully enforced.” However, shenoted, “at this point, I am not sure where we need to depart from[the] past administration” policies. Norton conceded the processused by the Clinton administration to recently designate 19 parkareas as national monuments, which places them off-limits to anydevelopment, “causes me concern.”

Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, the senior Republican on thepanel, was by far her biggest supporter. That’s because, in Norton,he finally will get someone in the Interior Department who haspromised to work with Congress if it should move to open up ANWR toenvironmentally 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 thepresident has the authority to open up this area.” That authorityrests with Congress, he said.

“I view the role of the Department of Interior as helpingprovide the information to this Congress so that you can make aninformed decision” about whether or not to open the refuge to oiland gas drilling, she said.

If Congress should open up ANWR, “I will certainly follow anylaws that are passed to be sure of the importantresources of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are preserved atthe same time that any exploration and production would takeplace.”

Murkowski 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. “I’m aware of the important need for natural gas notjust because our economy is expanding.but also because natural gasis 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” thepipeline project, she said.

The Republican senators and others did their best last Thursdayto defuse the controversy plaguing her nomination by painting theenvironmentalists who opposed her as “extremists.” Greenpeace, forexample, in a show of opposition to Norton’s nomination, last weekdraped a large banner across the entrance of the Interior buildingthat read: “Our Land, Not Oil Land.”

Although her nomination has been “tarred with innuendo andbrushed 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 theinterests of the environment and industry, which Murkowski contendsis “dramatically out of proportion” at this point. He believes thisimbalance is largely responsible for the current crisis inCalifornia, “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 arefacing serious shortages of energy is another great cause ofconcern. We’ll have to pull together all of our resources and workacross departmental lines to find ways of addressingthose…issues,” she said.

Susan Parker

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