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The Sacking of Science at Interior

November 25, 2001|JAMIE RAPPAPORT CLARK | Jamie Rappaport Clark, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director in the Clinton administration, is senior vice president for conservation programs at the National Wildlife Federation

WASHINGTON — At her Senate confirmation hearing, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton swore that she would use "the best scientific evidence" in making decisions as the steward of the nation's wildlife and wild places. But a disturbing pattern is undermining the secretary's credibility.

Among the most flagrant examples was how she handled a request for information from Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska). The senator had asked Norton several questions about the proposed opening of the "1002 Area," or coastal plain, of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. Appropriately, Norton turned to her professional staff at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Arctic refuge, to prepare written responses, based on the best scientific evidence, to his questions. Then she wrote the senator.

But Norton's letter did not faithfully report her staff's findings. In referring to the 130,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd that has become a symbol of the refuge, Norton's letter said that "concentrated calving occurred primarily outside the 1002 Area in 11 of the past 18 years." Flat wrong. As her staff told her, there have been "calving concentrations within the 1002 Area for 27 out of the last 30 years."

Norton went on to inform Murkowski, then chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, that "data do not support the hypothesis that oil fields adversely affect caribou productivity." Her answer ignored the evidence supplied by her own staff. That evidence shows that reproductive pauses--the years in which females do not produce calves--are longer in areas around oil development in Prudhoe Bay, just west of the Arctic refuge, than in undisturbed areas.

The secretary asserted in another section of the letter that there is no evidence of harm to caribou from oil exploration on Native American lands within the Arctic refuge's coastal plain. Again, she failed to acknowledge, as her staff informed her, that "no studies were conducted" to determine such effects.

Norton included in her letter some pro-drilling information culled from a report sponsored by BP Exploration. Her spokesman claimed the information had been reviewed by peers. But no such review took place.

When Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility revealed these and other discrepancies in the letter, and reporters asked Norton about them, she explained, "We did make a mistake."

It's not the mistakes themselves that are disturbing. Rather, it's their pattern and seeming bias.

The secretary says it is her "responsibility" and that of her department "to show that [Arctic refuge oil development] can be done in an environmentally responsible way." True, if she were employed by the oil industry. But she's not. As Interior secretary, her responsibility is to provide the best scientific information on whether or not drilling is compatible with the Arctic environment.

Norton has said that the Bush administration supports Arctic drilling legislation that will "impose the strictest possible environmental standards." Yet, in light of how the secretary herself describes her responsibility, it's troubling to know that such standards would be largely determined by Norton. According to an analysis of the administration-supported House energy bill and its Arctic drilling provisions by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, "Many decisions relating to the protection of the fish and wildlife resources of the refuge, and the protection of the environment in general, would be committed to the discretion of the secretary, whose choices would be difficult to challenge under the strict standards for judicial review in the House bill."

In essence, the House bill's approach to Arctic well-being amounts to trust Secretary Norton. That's hardly reassuring.

Norton's pattern of misstatements and omissions extends beyond Arctic drilling. She moved to overturn plans to return grizzly bears to the Northern Rockies wilderness on patently political grounds, without even asking for scientific advice. Eight of the nation's top wildlife-science organizations have said her "no action" grizzly plan directly contradicts the best scientific evidence. Similarly, she's advanced a proposal to alter migratory-bird hunting regulations--at the urging of powerful political allies--without regard for scientific input or standard procedures that permit detailed comment. In another, still unexplained action, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comments highly critical of proposed rules for removing mountain tops for coal mining were suddenly withdrawn. The withdrawal followed objections from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, an agency also under Norton's supervision, but far more sympathetic to mining interests.

Trusting Secretary Norton is difficult when it increasingly appears that scientific information generated by the Interior Department is impeded or ignored when it runs counter to the political outcomes the secretary supports. The pattern has prompted several leading environmental organizations to ask the Senate to hold hearings on the possible ethical and legal implications of Norton's conduct, specifically concerning the apparent distortions of scientific findings in her letter to Murkowski.

The Senate should seriously consider the request. Meanwhile, as they consider the fate of the Arctic refuge, senators would do well to question any advice provided by Norton. Given her penchant for misstatement and for misrepresenting her responsibility, the evidence shows that the secretary's pro-drilling arguments must not be accepted on faith.

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