Secretary Norton discusses ANWR, water, OCS, woodpeckers and more ...

The budget resolution paves the way for Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Western states still can't agree on who gets how much water. Efforts are under way to let states decide on offshore oil drilling. And a rare bird is found in Arkansas for the first time in decades. Interior Secretary Gale Norton joins OnPoint to discuss her agency's role in this wide range of national issues and the Bush administration's environment and energy plans.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to another edition of OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Our guest today is Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Also with us is Ben Geman, reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Secretary Norton, thank you for being here.

Gale Norton: Oh, you're very welcome.

Colin Sullivan: I'd like to start out with a question about the most popular bird in town right now, the ivory billed woodpecker. As you know, a team of ornithologists found proof of the woodpecker, which was formerly extinct for about 60 years. They found it in eastern Arkansas. I'm wondering to what extent you feel Interior Department policies were responsible for recovery of the species.

Gale Norton: Well, I think it is clear that the reclamation and restoration protection efforts that had been done over the last 50 years had a lot to do with the species staying in -- hanging on just enough to still have some there. We, at this point, don't know that much about exactly what its current habitat is, but we do know the area is very, very rich for biological diversity. The number of birds that are found in that area is about 240 different species of birds. They're migratory birds that come from all over the Western Hemisphere through there. There are seven other endangered species that are found there. This is bottomland, hardwood forest, and so it's one of our highest priority types of habitat to preserve. So we had already been doing a lot of efforts there. And now, knowing that the bird is there, is just a tremendous plus for us.

Colin Sullivan: Now early indications seems to point to reforestation as a big reason in this national wildlife refuge where they found the bird. I'm wondering if this speaks to the crucialness of habitat as you go on to reform ESA; and also does it give you pause and say maybe you're being too aggressive in terms of reforming the Endangered Species Act?

Gale Norton: Well, certainly we know that habitat protection is very important for wildlife. And, of course, it depends on different species what their needs are. This is very important. But what we've learned is that it's those efforts that really make a difference on habitat that are going to have the most benefit. And the ones that have made the most difference are things like the conservation reserve and wetlands reserve and the Department of Agriculture and our working with landowners to restore habitat for endangered species on private lands. You can get people enthused about protecting a species if you're working with them to help make the habitat best on their land through technical assistance and working with them voluntarily. And sometimes that's a lot better than having the species become the enemy of people. We want people to stay enthusiastic about the woodpecker, and so we want to work with people in the local communities so that we can make sure that the needs of the woodpeckers are being met. We do that in a way that is going to be very compatible with local landowners. We know that, and we've already been expanding our wildlife refuge down there. We have a number of farmers that are interested in selling their land for wildlife refuge purposes, and so that is a situation that makes it fairly easy for us to move ahead with that.

Ben Geman: Yeah, I wanted to actually go into that a little bit further. What are some of the specific steps the department's going to be taking to ensure that, now that the bird has, in fact, been discovered, that it thrives or at least survives?

Gale Norton: Well, we are sort of in a position of having just verified that the bird actually exists, and so we don't have a complete plan in place to say these are all the things we need to do to take care of it. What we have, we are appointing a team. I've appointed Sam Hamilton, our regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, to head that team that is going to be planning what the recovery effort is going to be and figuring out the needs of the species. We'll involve the state and local officials, as well as, of course, the Nature Conservancy has been terrific in this, and a variety of the experts in the area. We have put money into, you know, having funds available for that project already, into some planning and research and monitoring efforts, and so forth. We're also concerned about law enforcement, because we don't want people coming down and trying to, you know, everybody go out to try and see the woodpecker themselves, and so we do have some resources that will also go to the efforts to protect the habitat in that way.

Ben Geman: Great, wanted to switch topics a little bit for a moment to the Water 2025 program. These are very sort of tight budgetary times. Nonetheless, the department and the White House proposed budget seeks a pretty significant increase in funds for Water 2025. Why is it important to increase that funding when we've got such belt tightening going on elsewhere?

Gale Norton: We've experienced tremendous drought in the western United States over the last few years in the lower western United States, in the Colorado River Basin. The drought there, over the last six years, was estimated to be the worst in 500 years. For the northern regions, we're now still seeing some serious drought there; and so we've got, you know, while things are looking a little better in the southern part, we still have drought as a very significant factor now. We also know that it's an arid region with the fastest growing populations in the country. But what we're trying to do is to plan ahead so that we can meet the needs of human beings without disrupting endangered species, without disrupting agriculture, trying to get all of those things balanced by planning ahead. The Water 2025 program, though its challenge grant program and some other things, has shown the potential for accomplishing tremendous things with very small federal resources.

Ben Geman: Right, I think it's about $20 million, approximately so far?

Gale Norton: The overall program is about that. Our grant programs are $10 million for this year. Last year, we only had $4 million in grants; and we had, in various local agencies, water districts and so forth, that came up with really creative proposals that saved a tremendous amount of water. We had things like computerizing the operation of irrigation systems and better monitoring where the water was going, so that we were able to pinpoint the water to where it needed to be. We have seen the development of water banks and water marketing, so there are ways of trying to meet the needs of agriculture and endangered fish and cities, at the same time.

Colin Sullivan: You mentioned the Colorado River. I'm wondering if you are going to intervene. There's a dispute out there among the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River. I know you're thinking about possibly intervening. I'm wondering if you have news to announce today that you're going to jump in, and then order those states what to do and how to deal with their water.

Gale Norton: Well, we have continuing responsibilities in that area, and so whatever we do, we have to manage the river, and so we will be managing the issues in the Colorado River.

Colin Sullivan: Is the decision imminent? I mean I know the --

Gale Norton: There is a decision that we need to make fairly soon, and we have asked for input from the seven states. We hoped that they would reach agreement on it, and they have not. And so we're looking now at what will need to be done in that area. We have, overall, tried to get the states to work together, because we think that the best thing for the western U.S. is for the states to be able to reach agreement among themselves.

Ben Geman: Well, what -- given that they have not reached an agreement on this, I mean is that a bit of a troubling sign? I mean what does that say about the future of cooperation on water in the West? It's a very touchy issue.

Gale Norton: It says that the last history of 150 years of conflict about water in the West is the reality that we have to deal with. There are mechanisms that we're developing that help with cooperation, but people in the East, in the more areas where there's more precipitation, don't really realize what a critical issue water is in the West, and that's why we really want to get everybody's perspective as we are making those decisions. And while the states may not have been able to agree on issues and how they should be resolved, at least they've given us a pretty good understanding of each of the state's perspectives on the various potentials.

Colin Sullivan: If we can move onto another issue. There was a big Washington Post story this week about how the Bureau of Land Management has, perhaps, issued too many oil and gas permits, that the actual producers can't keep up with the permits that BLM has issued. Do you feel like BLM, the Interior Department, has gone too far, issued too many permits in this climate of trying to increase supply with high prices?

Gale Norton: That was a very odd article, because the criticism that we've had in the past is that we have not been ahead of industry, and so industry has basically been ready to go ahead with investments, and they've had to wait until the government could catch up to what they were doing. It really makes more sense for people to have their permits before they start going out and doing work, before they enter into contracts for -- to hire people to work on projects and things like that. And so it really makes more sense for us to have processed a few more of the applications so we're ahead of the curve instead of industry having to sit and wait for us. It gives us more ability also to look a little more broadly across the landscape. It's better if we can handle a number of different requests for drilling permits all at the same time, so that we can say, "Gee, instead of having five different roads, you could have all of these served by one road. Instead of having several different pipelines, you could have one pipeline that would serve several different places." And so we've really been trying to make the effort to handle these as in groups.

Colin Sullivan: This is the clustering of the permits.

Gale Norton: Yes, the clustering of permits, so that we then are able to plan on a broader basis, and that gets us a -- that means that not every one of those permits is going to be having the drilling rig sitting there waiting to go the minute we finish the permit.

Ben Geman: But isn't one of the criticisms, and I hear this frequently from the environmental community, that, as BLM goes ahead with leasing of new areas, that the criticism isn't so much that you're issuing too many drill permits, although that's part of it, but that why do you have to go ahead with leasing of new areas, which they say you're doing without sufficient environment analysis, when we don't even have all the permitted wells being developed.

Gale Norton: We're doing years of environmental analysis as we're going into leasing areas, and so this is, you know, major environmental impact statements that have been done on most of the areas that we're leasing. And even with that, as we get nominations from industry, which is the way our process works. They get -- they nominate particular areas they would like to see leased. Even as we get those nominations, there are many that we take off the table and say, "No, that's wildlife habitat that's sensitive," or for other reasons, we're not going to be leasing in those areas.

Colin Sullivan: Another drilling issue that's big in Congress right now is drilling on the outer continental shelf. Senator Lamar Alexander has a bill in the Senate that might get into the Senate energy bill. We're not sure yet -- might make it in -- that would essentially cede to states the right to determine for themselves whether or not they would drill off in their coastal waters. I'm wondering what your position is on that language, whether or not you think that's a good idea.

Gale Norton: The administration has not yet taken a position on that language. There have been several different proposals around; and, for the most part, there is not even final language agreed to on what those proposals are going to be; and so it's still premature for us to have a position on that. We do want to work with states on offshore activities, and that has been a major theme for this administration, is wanting to work closely with the states on those issues.

Ben Geman: But given that the administration has said several times over the last several years that it supports the extension of the existing restrictions until 2012, wouldn't what Senator Alexander is proposing explicitly be doing something very different from that?

Gale Norton: It is all dependent on what the states want to see, and, you know, that's really at the core of what the president has said. But, certainly, we're not initiating anything that is going to move away from the protection of the moratoria.

Ben Geman: But if a state was allowed to, not to beat a dead horse, but if a state was allowed to say, "We want the moratoria," and did have the moratoria off of its shores, are you saying the Interior Department would or would not support that?

Gale Norton: Well, that's -- it's very speculative, and we don't have any situation, really, where that has occurred. I know Virginia has passed something in their Legislature that said they wanted to look at that, but just a state saying, "Gee, we would like to have offshore activities," would be far from us immediately making a decision. In fact, our process for the offshore leasing is one that is a five-year program; and the preparation for that five-year schedule of leasing takes a couple of years of environmental analysis.

Ben Geman: Is, again, and that's five-year offshore plans.

Gale Norton: Yes, right.

Ben Geman: And another offshore area that's very related to this is the lease-sell 181 area off of -- both off Florida and Alabama. What is the future of the 181 area? Is it going to be -- is the -- are the restrictions going to be maintained through 2012 in that area in the next plan?

Gale Norton: There has not been any final decision made on any area in the OCS that's, you know, none of that area. The only area that we've specifically said is the area that's within a hundred miles of the Florida coastline. And we have said that that area would not be considered for leasing in the next five-year plan.

Colin Sullivan: Another issue that's moving on the Hill is drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We had an interesting week in the House Budget Committee. Chairman of the House Budget Committee Jim Nussle effectively said, "ANWR drilling is not in the budget resolution." His Senate counterpart, Judd Gregg, comes out and says, "It is in the budget resolution." The reality at the end of the day is the budget resolution would pave the way for instructions to open ANWR. I'm wondering if -- I mean can you jump in on this and say does the budget resolution open ANWR to drilling? Is that your understanding of what it does?

Gale Norton: Well, certainly that's a, you know, Congress has to decide what is going to be in its legislation; and this is a very arcane procedural time period here. But it certainly seems that, you know, even just by having it on the Senate side means that all of those issues are going to be presented to conferees.

Colin Sullivan: Now, also, when the Senate first came out with its plan to open ANWR, they were going to direct a big part of that federal revenue towards Land and Water Conservation Fund conservation efforts. That language seems to have disappeared now that we've gotten down to the conference report. I guess there's still a chance to put it back in in the reconciliation process. Is that language going to come back? What's your position on that? Should that language come back?

Gale Norton: This is a two-step process, and the specifics of an ANWR proposal would have to be spelled out in that second step of the process. The administration actually, our first proposal, was that the initial money, the initial bids on ANWR would go to alternative energies, and then the subsequent revenues would all go to conservation. What we found is that the members of Congress really want to figure out for themselves exactly how that money is going to be spent, and so the administration has really worked with senators on various options and with representatives, but we have not had a specific outcome for the dollars as a key part of the administration --

Colin Sullivan: Are you saying that the administration's position continues to be that they should use a big, like $1 billion of those revenues in the next fiscal year, for example, towards conservation efforts? Is that position you'd push on the Hill?

Gale Norton: We think that it's most important to look at the issues of how we protect the area in ANWR, that it have strict regulation, which has always been a part of our proposal, and that we be able to provide Americans with access to the largest potential source of oil that has not yet been tapped in this country.

Ben Geman: Wanted to ask about one other thing, another energy issue. There's a provision that's in the energy bill this year that was added by Representative Cannon of Utah. This was not in the bill last year, I believe, or last session, sorry. And what it would require is that the Interior Department repurchase energy leases from industry in the event that, for a couple different reasons, the industry's not able to develop their leases. Would that be appropriate to have the federal government be required, not just suggesting, but required to repurchase energy leases?

Gale Norton: I have not seen that provision, and I don't know what the details are to determine what the fiscal impact of that would be. Now, we have repurchased leases in some situations. There are some leases offshore Florida that we repurchased that would have been very close into the Florida shore, and so to prevent the development there, we repurchased those. Similarly, we have been negotiating for a couple of years with oil companies that have leases offshore California.

Colin Sullivan: Now I know, one last question. I know you're not a member of Congress, but it seems to me the energy process is sort of hung up on this idea that you have to move a comprehensive bill, and there's all these different facets going into a comprehensive bill, and you get all these regional conflicts that, in the end, have slowed it down the last four years. Do you think that's a mistake? Do you think Congress should take a step back and maybe do some of these things piecemeal?

Gale Norton: Well, the problem with that kind of an approach that we often see is, once you pass something with a label that says energy, then everybody says, "Well, we did energy. We don't have to do anything else." And we know that what we have is a very complex situation. We need to have conservation as a part of it. We need to have renewables as a part of it, and we need to have traditional energy sources. And so it really does make sense for the long-term future to have an approach that is going to address all of those things. There's no one single thing that is the answer.

Colin Sullivan: So do we get an energy bill by the end of the year?

Gale Norton: I think we will. I think that, with the high prices of gasoline that we see, that impacts everyone, with natural gas prices being so high, which, in the last five years, it's estimated has caused 90,000 jobs just in the chemical manufacturing industry to go overseas where gasoline, or where natural gas prices are cheaper. With the overall impact it has on our economy, with people wanting to move ahead with renewables, with people wanting to have assured tax credits on advanced technology vehicles. All of those kinds of things that make difference to different kinds of consumers are all something that are right now at very intense levels of people caring about those things, so I think we will see an energy bill.

Colin Sullivan: OK. Secretary Norton, thanks for being here. Hope you come back again.

Gale Norton: Thank you.

Colin Sullivan: Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

[End of Audio]



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