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Bushwhacked!

Horsemen of the environmental apocalypse

By David Helvarg

PRESIDENT George Bush's naming of former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton as Interior Secretary and recently defeated Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham as Energy Secretary suggests that Republicans haven't learned from the 104th Congress of 1995, when attempts to gut environmental protections helped undermine the short-lived Gingrich revolution. The beliefs Norton and Abraham share about natural-resource exploitation are as close as subsurface oil and gas but completely out of whack with their departments' stated missions.

As Colorado's attorney general from 1991 to 1998, Norton pushed programs of voluntary compliance for industrial polluters and opposed government (and voter) initiatives to counter sprawl. She has been an active advocate for "property rights," the idea that government should compensate developers when environmental laws and regulations limit their profits, while also fighting hard to protect agribusiness access to cheap federal water. Since 1999, she's worked for Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Strickland, a law firm that has lobbied for a range of sprawl-promoting clients, including Denver International Airport and the city's new taxpayer-financed stadium for its pro football team, the Denver Broncos.

A four-year veteran of James Watt's Mountain States Legal Foundation, Norton continued to work for Watt after he became President Reagan's controversial ("We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber") Interior Secretary.

In 1998 Norton, along with right-wing activist and BP oil lobbyist Grover Norquist, became co-chair of the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates. Dedicated to "free-market environmentalism," the CREA included "wise users," property-rights advocates, and auto, coal, mining and developer lobbyists. Traditional GOP environmentalists like the late Senator John Chafee refused to join the group.

In 1999 Norton joined the team advising the Bush campaign on developing a conservative environmental agenda. Among those working with her was David Koch of Koch industries, which last year paid a $35 million fine for oil pollution in six states; also Lynn Scarlett, a senior fellow at the antiregulatory Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, which according to the Washington Post lived up to its acronym by holding a series of all-expenses-paid "seminars" for federal judges at a Montana dude ranch.

NORTON'S commitment to begin oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could make her the most controversial interior secretary since her mentor. On the other hand, the media's focus on her being a pro-choice Republican suggests she'll also support a caribou's right to abort before losing its habitat.

Working closely with Norton as energy secretary will be longtime Republican operative and former Dan Quayle staff aide Spencer Abraham, who only last year called for the abolition of the Energy Department (as a cost-saving measure). During his one term as senator from Michigan Abraham fought to limit fuel-efficiency requirements for SUVs, limit renewable energy research, abolish the federal gasoline tax, and open up ANWR to oil drilling. While this won him a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters, it also scored him close to $450,000 in contributions from energy and natural resource industries in his failed re-election bid. Ironically, he has now become a personal example of recycling.

Aligning with Abraham and Norton will be Don Evans, a FOG (Friend of George) oil executive and $100 million Bush fundraiser. As the next commerce secretary (another department Abraham wanted to abolish), Evans will oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead agency for America's oceans (which are the source of 25 percent of our domestic oil and 26 percent of our natural gas).

If, following the lead of the oilmen in the White House, Cabinet members Norton, Abraham, and Evans should choose drilling, particularly in the ANWR, as their first environmental battle (something national green groups believe they will), they could quickly find themselves sinking in a political quagmire of their own creation.


This article was first published in 'The Nation.'

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From the February 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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