Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton faces opposition from environmental groups.
RAY SUAREZ: The smiles and handshakes greeting Secretary of the Interior-designate Gale Norton this afternoon in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee belied the controversy surrounding her appointment. In advance of today's hearing, environmental groups have leveled tough criticism at this nominee. As Colorado's first female Attorney General, Norton enforced environmental cleanup at Rocky Mountain arsenal and Rocky Flats. Before that, she was an attorney at the Interior Department, serving under controversial Secretary James Watt. She also worked with Watt at the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation. In his opening statement, Chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico raised questions about Norton's background.
SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN, (D) New Mexico: For over 20 years she has consistently championed the interests of individuals as opposed to the public interest in many of the issues that have come before this Committee and before the office of the Secretary of Interior. She's championed the rights of states as opposed to the federal government's, and the interests of economic development rather than environmental protection in many cases.
RAY SUAREZ: Norton defended her environmental record and outlined the Bush administration's environmental goals.
GALE NORTON: One of President-elect Bush's priorities is to protect our national park system. We plan to return scientists to our parks and work with Congress to eliminate the major maintenance backlogs that have been obstacles to resource protection, and to do that within five years. This initiative would help restore our national parks and ensure a positive legacy of protecting our cultural, natural and recreation treasures for Americans today and in the future. I will be candid in telling you that I am both a conservative and a conservationist. I see no conflict there. In fact, I am a compassionate conservative, and a passionate conservationist. I believe that, too, is entirely consistent. If confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, I intend to make the conservation of America's natural resources my top priority.
RAY SUAREZ: Norton was asked about the Clinton administration's recent flurry of executive actions, setting aside land and creating new national monuments using a law called the Antiquities Act.
SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN: Do you believe that the President's use of that Antiquities Act... President Clinton's use of that Antiquities Act was appropriate or not?
GALE NORTON: The goal of preserving lands is an admirable goal, and I share the goal of being sure we are identifying those areas, they ought to be natural treasures, and setting those aside. The process in which those decisions were made is one that causes me concern. Many of those decisions were made through a top-down process without consulting the people who were most affected by those decisions and I would certainly hope that in the future we would hear input from those of you on this committee, from governors, from local communities, before we take actions that are going to deeply impact people's lives.
RAY SUAREZ: Several Senators asked Norton how she would deal with energy problems, including those faced by California.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI: Do you feel that you can bring together within this new administration the wherewithal and the policy makers to resolve and make some decisions about how we're going to relieve our dependence on imports 56% going up to we heard this morning 62% by the year 2004 -- our greatest source seems to be coming now from Saddam Hussein -- we fought a war in '92. We lost 147 lives. We can't address what to do with our nuclear waste. Oil prices continue to go up and we're looking towards natural gas and using it fast, and you're going to have to find some of the answers with some of your collective colleagues. How do you propose to do it?
GALE NORTON: The issue of Americans being so dependent on foreign oil is obviously a great cause of concern. The idea that people in California this very day are facing serious shortages of energy is another great cause of concern. We will have to pull together all of our resources and work across departmental lines to find ways of addressing those issues. Obviously it's going to be difficult to find short-term answers.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic Senator Evan Bayh observed that Norton had voiced what he called some doubt about certain environmental laws. He asked her if there are instances when those laws should prevail.
GALE NORTON: I support the endangered species goals of preserving and protecting endangered species. I think that mining operations ought to be reclaimed as the Surface Mining Reclamation Act requires. I think that we ought to provide opportunities for people with disabilities. There are many things where we may disagree about the ways in which laws are structured, where the states might like to see more control in their own ability to make decisions, and the federal government might like to see more control lodged with it. But there is a broad national consensus behind those laws, and that should not dissuade us from pursuing the goals of those laws.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Norton hearings resume tomorrow.