Mixed reception for Bush’s new top environment officials

There have been mixed reactions to President-elect George Bush's choice for the top three US posts crucial to the environment, including an Energy Secretary who recently attempted to abolish his new department.

New Jersey Governor, Christie Todd Whitman, has been picked as the new Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with Gale Norton, Attorney General for the state of Colorado for eight years, being nominated to replace Bruce Babbit as Secretary for the Interior. Spencer Abraham, former Senator for Michigan is nominated as Energy Secretary.

“We are cautiously optimistic about the direction that Governor Bush appears to be moving with some of his environmental appointments,” said Betsy Loyless, Political Director of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), following the nomination of Whitman at the end of December, but before Norton and Abraham were announced. “While Governor Whitman has been criticised by state environmental groups for her record on protecting the state’s air and water, she has also promoted environmentally responsible programmes in her state. Her appointment could be an important indicator that Bush, who, as Governor, appointed only industry representatives to head Taxas’ environmental agency, is willing to move in the right direction on environmental issues.”

Whitman has supported legislation such as that providing $10 million for the preservation of Sterling Forest, and has developed an award-winning sustainable development programme. On the other hand, she has come under fire from environmentalists for making staff cuts at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, a move, which her critics claim, has limited the ability of the state environmental agency to monitor and enforce pollution controls.

However, an air of pessimism has greeted the nomination of Gale Norton to the Interior Department and Spencer Abraham to Energy. According to the LCV, the two nominations are a giant step backwards for environmental protection. “We are stunned by President-elect Bush’s appointment of Abraham, a member of LCV’s 2000 dirty Dozen list, and our number one target for defeat last year,” said Deb Callahan, President of the LCV. “He even co-sponsored a bill to abolish the very department he’s been nominated to lead. In Norton, Bush has nominated someone whose environmental ethic is a throwback to the James Watt (Interior Secretary under President Reagan) era – one of the darkest periods of natural resource exploitation. These appointments don’t reflect the reality that conservatism and conservation shouldn’t be treated as conflicting values.”

During the Reagan administration, Norton served in the Agriculture Department and then in the Interior Department, where she helped to advocate for the administration’s position on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As Attorney General, she was also instrumental in creating the state’s ‘self audit’ programme, giving businesses immunity from prosecution if they voluntarily report and correct violations of environmental laws, though the programme was designed to encourage companies to solve their environmental problems.

Environmentalist’s fears about Norton are strengthened by the welcoming of her nomination by the American Land Rights Association (ALRA), a non-profit organisation advocating private property rights and multiple use of federal lands including recreational and commercial access. According to the ALRA, the nomination of Norton is a positive step forward for solving complex problems involving environmental protection and people’s rights of access and use of land.

“Gale Norton cares about private property, access to federal lands and multiple use of those lands for the benefit of all Americans. My experience is that she supports conservation and good stewardship,” said Chuck Cushman, Executive Director of the ALRA. “The Interior Department is very important to land, environmental and economic issues in rural America. It is a complex agency that oversees over one quarter of the nation’s land. It will take a young energetic, yet experienced person like Gale Norton to reach out and heal the damage caused during the last eight years.”

“She will guide the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies and play a major role in finding a way to protect endangered species while also protecting the economy and human needs of a complex society,” added Cushman.

As well as attempting to abolish the Energy Department, Spencer Abraham also voted in 1999 against stronger fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and to cut funding for renewable energy programmes, according to the LCV. He has also supported numerous legislative riders to eliminate the EPA’s role in protecting wetlands and to prohibit the EPA from regulating arsenic in drinking water. In 1998, he supported a rider to the Fiscal Year 2000 Interior Appropriations Bill that would have legalised unlimited mine waste dumping on public lands. However, during the 2000 election campaign, at which Abraham lost his seat in the Senate, the LCV spent $700,000 on informing voters of his anti-environmental record.

“Abraham and Norton’s nominations are terrible news for the majority of Americans who rank protecting the nation’s air, water and national resources among their top priorities,” said Callahan. “While Bush’s appointment of Christie Todd Whitman to head the Environmental Protection Agency appeared to be a step in the right direction, his choices of Abraham and Norton are signs of environmental regress, not progress.”

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