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Accusations Fly Over Arctic Refuge Video

April 12, 2002|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Adding fuel to the debate over proposed oil and gas exploration in the Arctic refuge, a Democratic congressman Thursday accused Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton of breaking the law by using an industry-backed video to promote the drilling.

An Interior Department spokesman said distribution of the video to news outlets and its posting on the agency's Web site was approved by one of the agency's senior attorneys.

The video depicts a frozen, inhospitable tundra in the winter when, proponents say, drilling would take place. It is designed to counter pictures shown by environmentalists of a lush, green wilderness rich with wildlife that they say would be endangered by energy exploration.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) accused Norton of violating a ban on spending government funds "for publicity or propaganda purposes, and for the . . . distribution or use of any . . . film presentation designed to support or defeat legislation pending before Congress. . . . "

It appears that Norton's promotion of the video "to influence Congress to drill in the Arctic [National Wildlife] Refuge is precisely the kind of activity that is prohibited by law," Markey said in a letter to Norton, urging her to "cease and desist."

"The Interior Department shouldn't be spreading oil company propaganda any more than the Department of Energy should be promoting Enron stock," Markey added in an interview.

Interior Department spokesman Mark Pfeifle defended Norton's actions, saying: "ANWR videos: $95.81. Postage to send ANWR videos to network news anchors: $43.55. Informing Americans what the real Alaska North Slope looks like in the dead of winter: Priceless."

The video was produced by Arctic Power, a lobby group working for the drilling plan and which Pfeifle pointed out is partly funded by Alaska's state government.

"The distribution of a video about what Alaska's North Slope actually looks like in the dead of winter was approved by one of the most senior career attorneys in our solicitor's office," he added.

The Markey letter was the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter fight over drilling in the Arctic refuge. The Senate will soon consider President Bush's call to open up the area to oil exploration as part of a comprehensive energy policy.

An energy bill passed by the GOP-controlled House last summer authorizes the drilling. But a bid to include that provision in the bill being debated by the Democratic-controlled Senate faces an uphill fight.

GOP senators were working Thursday to try to drum up support for the drilling from Democratic senators from industrial states by promising to steer government royalties from the exploration to aid for the steel industry. The funds would help pay for pension and health-care costs for retired steelworkers.

The Sierra Club assailed the effort as "raising cynicism and blackmail to an art form."

As the Senate continued debate Thursday on the energy bill, it dealt a setback to California's efforts to gain more flexibility in complying with a provision that would triple the amount of ethanol that must be added to gasoline nationwide.

California officials worry that the requirement will cause price spikes and supply shortages. But a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to require the Environmental Protection Agency to respond within 30 days to a state's request for a waiver from the ethanol requirement was tabled, largely on the votes of corn state lawmakers who favor increased use of ethanol.

"Clearly, the ethanol caucus prevailed" Thursday, Feinstein said. "I don't intend to vote for the bill if the mandate remains in its current form."

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