Greens red with rage

The man known as the Mike Tyson of the coal and oil industries is on his way to an Interior post with little opposition from the Democrats.

Published May 23, 2001 9:12PM (EDT)

For weeks now, various Washington environmental organizations have campaigned to the media and on Capitol Hill against the nominee for deputy secretary of the interior, J. Steven Griles -- aka "the Mike Tyson of the coal and oil industry operatives," as Friends of the Earth president Brent Blackwelder calls him.

Blackwelder claims Griles even compares unfavorably to his would-be boss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, whose nomination environmentalists opposed. "Norton's anti-environmental actions and attitudes pale in comparison," he says. "This confirmation must not move forward."

But this confirmation is moving forward. According to Bill Wicker, communications director for the Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Griles' nomination should come up for a formal vote Wednesday, and "we expect that the votes are there," including those from some Democrats.

Greens are incredulous. "I don't know how a senator who cares about environmental protection could vote for Steve Griles," complains Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel. But the orchestrated effort against Griles -- run primarily by the Environmental Working Group and the Community Rights Counsel, with the backing of other green groups -- has not made much of an impact.

Griles, who didn't return calls for this story, has, like Norton before him, made conciliatory noises, saying that he has evolved since his days serving under James Watt, and now favors a "balanced" approach to running Interior. "Steve's well qualified for the position," says White House spokesman Jimmy Orr. "He's very knowledgeable about the department, he understands the importance of stewardship and he understands the importance of balancing the many interests that face the Department of Interior."

Seconds Mark Pfeifle, spokesman for the Interior Department, "Unfortunately some groups feel they must demonize solid, qualified people like Steve Griles in order to increase the amount of money in their fundraising coffers."

But environmentalists like Kendall have no shortage of evidence showing that, as far as they're concerned, Griles -- who worked in the Interior Department during the Reagan administration before becoming a lobbyist for the oil, mining and coal industries -- is no friend of the earth. Disappointingly for them, however, they seem to have found only one member of the Senate committee charged with voting Griles in or out to hear them. During Griles' May 16 hearing, his self-declared evolution into favoring a "balanced" approach wasn't enough for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who told Griles, "You're going to have to give me some evidence that you would look at these issues in a different way. If you are going to do business basically as you have in the past, that's not good enough."

What might not be good enough for Wyden, though, actually does appear to be "good enough." With the exception of Wyden and possibly Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Griles' nomination is expected to be supported by the full committee Wednesday, and his nomination will move ahead for a full Senate vote.

Despite environmentalists' -- and even Wyden's -- best efforts, Griles has barely registered to some on the committee. "We haven't really paid much attention to this one," confides a staffer for one Democrat. "The senator hasn't been active on this one." The staffer says his boss will "likely" vote for Griles.

"The perceived wisdom up there is they're not getting anywhere by picking fights over nominations," says an exasperated Kendall. Kendall says that Senate Democrats say they generally "don't want to get into personnel fights, fights over appointments. They say they want to fight over policy -- but with an appointment like this, personnel is policy."

In a variety of high-level jobs at Reagan's Department of Interior, Griles left no doubt about which side he belonged to in the industry vs. environment policy battle. Whether citing Griles' actions promoting offshore oil leasing, or drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; whether bringing up Griles' support of a plan to sell off 82,000 acres of oil-shale lands for a low rate, or how he "gutted" the office of surface mining; environmental activists have bemoaned Griles since his name surfaced as a potential appointee. They point out that some of Griles' actions were so conservative they were quickly overturned by the incoming interior secretary under President George H. W. Bush, Manual Lujan.

As if that track record weren't enough, some environmentalists have been questioning Griles' ethics. In his last year at Interior, the Department of Lands and Minerals Management, headed by Griles, issued a number of rulings favorable to the mining industry. One ruling, for example, saved the coal industry $33.2 million in just 10 months' worth of royalties that mining companies would otherwise have paid to the federal government. By the time the ruling went into effect, on March 1, 1989, Griles had left his Interior job and was a highly paid executive at United Co., a major mining company. (Lujan, meanwhile, rescinded the ruling 10 months later.) Griles reportedly has claimed he made sure he had nothing to do with the mining law, but a column by syndicated columnist Jack Anderson at the time quoted Interior Department officials who said the new regulations were "Griles' brainchild and would have never passed without his endorsement."

But, says a senior aide to another committee Democrat, "Without a smoking gun, it's really tough to make a charge like that stick."

Interior spokesman Pfeifle says that the opposition to Griles just never happened simply because there was no reason to oppose him. The environmentalists tried, he says, gloating a tad, and they failed. Citing a May 16 Washington Post profile of Griles, Pfeifle says that "the Post was provided with a whole litany of allegations about Griles ranging the whole spectrum, from the obscure to the bizarre, from the wild to the wacky. It all ended up buried on Page A-21." Griles has already explained many of the controversies of his past rulings, Pfeifle says, and as for the ethics charges about the end of his tenure in 1988, that's just a matter of the enviros "throw(ing) as much mud on the wall as possible with the hopes that some of it sticks. But none of it has, or will."

The White House doesn't have any comment on any of the environmentalists' charges against Griles. "The confirmation process is underway now, and we're looking forward to having him as part of the administration," says Orr. Orr and the rest of the White House should look forward to Griles' suiting up for the team. Democrats, too, seem nonplussed by another tale of a government official who might be compromised because of a walk through the revolving door between government work and big industry. After Griles' short and sweet May 16 hearing Democrats needed to reassure environmentalists they were even listening.

"Various environmental groups have been very proactive and extremely effective in communicating their concerns about Steven Griles," Democratic press secretary Wicker says, trying to sound reassuring. "They've done a good job. We hear them loud and clear."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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