Norton says Bush to push for ANWR opening

Interior Sec. nominee Gale Norton made it clear, in confirmation hearings that ended Friday, that President-elect George Bush will honor his campaign pledge to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to oil exploration. She said the administration expects to impose a number of rules to limit environmental impacts.


WASHINGTON, DC�Interior Sec. nominee Gale Norton made it clear, in confirmation hearings that ended Friday, that President-elect George Bush will honor his campaign pledge to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to oil exploration.

However, she said the administration expects to impose a number of rules to limit the environmental impacts in the northeastern Alaska area.

Despite vociferous opposition to Norton from environmental groups, the Energy Committee is expected to approve her nomination as early as Tuesday. Senate confirmation also is expected.

Norton said oil companies would only explore ANWR "in the dead of winter, so that the tundra itself would not be affected, it would only be ice on top of the tundra where any vehicles might roll.

"Those are the kind of measures that are being discussed. We would certainly look to ways of trying to satisfy you that an environmentally sound approach can be done to try to look at reserves that we have heard are estimated to be larger than Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil area ever found in the US."

Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, noted that the final decision on opening the refuge would rest with Congress, not with herself or with Bush.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) attacked her position, but she was supported by chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alas.) and Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.).

Nickles said, "The Prudhoe Bay area, which originally had production of up to 2 million b/d, is now less than 1 million b/d. Prudhoe Bay is declining and in my opinion we need to open the ANWR to supplement that or else we're going to have an even greater dependency" on foreign oil.

Labeled by some as an extreme pro-business, anti-environment conservative, particularly because of her work with former Interior Sec. James Watt, Norton expressed moderate positions in 2 days of calm, relaxed testimony which won the vocal admiration of senators from both parties.

However, she made it clear under the new administration, Interior would take a very different approach than the current administration in several areas. For instance, she said Interior would consult with local officials before announcing the creation of national monuments.

Norton called for new attitudes toward using public lands. She noted that the Audubon Society generates revenues from resource extraction on its lands without harming wildlife. "I'd like to explore what they've learned from that to see what we can do from the public land perspective, so that we in that same way are reconciling the protection of species with the need to satisfy the energy that we need for our economy."

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) questioned Norton closely on her support for the current moratoria which prevents drilling off his state and others, and whether she would offer tracts in those areas in the leasing program the Minerals Management Service is drafting for 2002-2007.

Graham said he had been informed that the energy industry was preparing to lobby for inclusion of those areas in the plan, despite the moratoria, and that Norton "would be the point of pressure for that industry interest."

Norton said she agreed with Bush's support for the moratoria and said she expected the program "to reflect the conditions of the moratoria that are in place."

Both Graham and Murkowski also urged Norton to revise the offshore leasing procedure to ensure environmental assessments are made before leases are offered, to prevent situations where companies are blocked from developing leases later.

"It would seem to me to make much more sense to do much of that (environmental assessment) at the front end, and if there's a site that is found to be inappropriate for environmental reasons, you don't grant the lease in the beginning," Graham said. He implied Congress may change the leasing process with legislation.

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