Senate Confirms Bush's Key Environmental Choices

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, January 30, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate today registered its consent for two of President George W. Bush's key environmental policy advisors, as it voted to confirm Christine Todd Whitman as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Gale Norton as interior secretary.

Whitman, a Republican who has served as governor of the state of New Jersey since 1993, won Senate approval to head up the EPA by a unanimous 99-0 vote. Not voting on Whitman's nomination was Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota.

Whitman is expected to soon resign as New Jersey's chief executive to assume her duties as EPA administrator, one of 15 presidential cabinet level positions in the Bush administration.


New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman will be the new Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)

Whitman, 54, will oversee one of the key federal agencies responsible for establishing and enforcing a wide variety of environmental regulations, including federal air and water pollution standards. She will also guide the EPA's environmental research agenda, as well as make recommendations to the President on a broad scope of environmental policy issues.

There was little organized opposition to Whitman's nomination, though some environmental groups expressed concern that she would cave in to corporate polluters and other special interests as EPA administrator.

While those concerns were raised at Whitman's Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month, they were not enough to spark even one dissenting vote against the long time New Jersey Governor.

Senator Bob Smith, a Republican from New Hampshire, said that Whitman demonstrated a "commitment to the environment" when she was questioned on January 17 by the members of the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee.

"I look forward to working closely with her on developing a common sense environmental agenda that relies on cooperation and partnership with all of the states to achieve a health environment for this nation," Smith said.

But the Senate was much less conciliatory today in voting to confirm Gale Norton as the nation's 48th interior secretary. Almost a quarter of the 100 member body voted against Norton, who nevertheless won confirmation by a margin of 75 to 24.


Gale Norton, a former attorney general for the state of Colorado, won Senate confirmation today as President George W. Bush's Interior Secretary

Senator Paul Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, articulated a view of Norton that is shared by many in the environmental community.

"Gale Norton has shown a career pattern of opposing core environmental protections, which speaks to her ability to carry out the requirements of the Secretary of Interior," Wellstone said. "I believe that Ms. Norton has not demonstrated the required balance needed to be a guardian of our national heritage and trustee of our national lands."


Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone was one 24 lawmakers to vote against Norton (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Norton will be saddled with many responsibilities as interior secretary, such as managing millions of acres of federal lands and enforcing laws that protect endangered species.

She will oversee a group of environmentally related agencies that includes the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Minerals Management Service, the Office of Surface Mining, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Norton, who served as attorney general for the state of Colorado for eight years, drew sharp criticism from the environmental community when her nomination was announced by the Bush administration earlier this month. A coalition of conservation, public health, labor and civil rights groups launched a seven figure public relations blitz that depicted Norton as a "ideological extremist" whose views regarding public lands and federal environmental laws are sharply at odds with the beliefs held by most Americans.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said that Norton's confirmation as Interior Secretary could lead to the "devastation of our nation's parks and wildlands."

"We understand that deference is paid to a President's [cabinet] choices, but we felt we had a responsibility to shed light on Norton's radical record and warn that Americans would not stand for her extremist agenda," Pope said of the campaign to block Norton.

"Norton's nomination is a giant reward to the oil, gas and mining industries that funded President Bush's campaign," Pope said.

Norton has drawn fire for her ties to James Watt, who was sharply criticized by environmental groups during his tumultuous three year stint as President Ronald Reagan's interior secretary in the 1980s. Norton served under Watt in the Reagan Interior Department, where she worked to open the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.

Norton has been harshly criticized for her support of Colorado's controversial environmental self-audit law, which grants prosecutorial immunity to industries that voluntarily disclose their pollution violations to regulatory officials.

Moreover, Norton was rebuked for her past assertions that certain provisions of key environmental laws - such as the Surface Mining Act and the Endangered Species Act - may be unconstitutional.

"Gale Norton's support for self-regulation by polluters and limitations on corporate responsibility for environmental damage, combined with her failure to enforce clean air and clean water laws as a state attorney general lead me to conclude she will seek to limit, evade, and perhaps even subvert the tremendous responsibilities that reside in the office of the Secretary of the Interior," said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat who voted against Norton's confirmation.


New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

Senator Wayne Allard, a Republican from Norton's home state of Colorado, was quick to reject those characterizations. Allard said that Norton will make an "outstanding" secretary of the interior.

"I think today's vote by the Senate is a vindication of Gale Norton and her record of public service," Allard said. "The Senate saw through all of the half-truths and distortions put out by her opponents, and recognized this is a person who has served her state and nation in a professional manner."

Allard's point was echoed by Congressman James Hansen, a Republican who chairs the House's influential Natural Resources committee. Hansen said that Norton's confirmation signals a "sea change towards a coherent national energy policy that protects our environment while meeting our energy needs."

"We're all seeing the havoc [that] a poor energy policy can wreak on our economy and our personal pocketbooks," Hansen said.

Hansen and other Republicans on Capitol Hill blame the nation's soaring energy prices on former President Bill Clinton, who made frequent use of the federal Antiquities Act to designate a host of National Monuments throughout the Western United States. Clinton, by designating the monuments, effectively prohibited oil and gas exploration on millions of acres of public lands.

Hansen has vowed to roll back the designation of the monuments. With Norton's help, Hansen said, the new Congress will "shape an energy policy that steers us clear of shortages and runaway prices that are Clinton's legacy."


Norton has joined Congressional Republicans in criticizing former President Bill Clinton for prohibiting oil and gas development on some of the nation's public lands (Photo courtesy White House Council on Environmental Quality)

Environmental groups say they will not stand idly by and let that happen.

"We will fight every effort by Norton or the Bush administration to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, or to falsely link that oil development to the current California energy crisis," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

The confirmation of Norton and Whitman leaves Bush with just one cabinet seat left to fill - that of attorney general. Bush's controversial nominee for that post, former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft, has also faced sharp criticism from the environmental community.

The Senate could vote on Ashcroft as early as Thursday.