Norton’s Opponents Are the Real Extremists

The U.S. Senate is poised to begin confirmation hearings on what, oddly enough, has become something of a controversial nomination – that of former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior. Oddly controversial because no one has suggested that she is unqualified for the position. Instead, her nomination has become a lightning rod for extreme environmental special interests, who cannot tolerate anyone that disagrees with their opinions in any way.

What cardinal sins do these radicals cite as cause for rejecting Ms. Norton? A litany of charges that, when examined, show that her approach to conservation and land management will provide substantial benefits to both the environment and the economy.

The loudest opposition is generated by the fact that Norton has supported oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In a time of tightening energy supplies, tapping a potential 16 billion barrels of oil – enough to replace Saudi Arabian imports for 30 years – just might make economic sense. With modern technology, any environmental impact on this remote area that virtually no American will ever see would be minimal. In fact, as little as 2,000 acres out of the 19 million-acre ANWR area would be affected.

However, this is hardly the point. Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not it makes sense to tap ANWR’s oil. But insisting, as her critics do, that anyone willing to explore the idea is inherently unfit to serve as a cabinet officer is nothing less than environmental McCarthyism.

Another objection to Norton’s confirmation is her support for compensating individuals when government actions reduce the value of their property. What a seditious concept! Imagine, requiring government bureaucrats to face up to the costs of their own rules and regulations instead of arbitrarily shifting the burdens onto individuals. This is not only an integral facet of democracy, but it might actually lead to more effective and scientifically sound policies.

Norton has also come under fire for advocating greater involvement of states, localities, and the private sector in environmental stewardship and land management decisions. To quote Colonel Kurtz, “The horror!” People actually affected by government actions having a say? How will the Republic survive?

It is true that by consulting actors outside the beltway, Norton might not pursue the policies demanded by Washington, D.C.-based environmental special interests. However, declining to misuse the Antiquities Act by creating vast new national monuments, for example, does not disqualify someone from serving as Secretary of the Interior.

Consider one last attack on Norton: that she fought for environmental self-audits in Colorado. Aside from the fact that this is more the domain of an EPA administrator than a Secretary of the Interior, Norton’s position is well within the mainstream. More than two dozen states already have self-audit laws on the books.

Self-audits allow businesses to inspect their facilities – in a more thorough manner than regulatory agencies with limited knowledge and staff could ever accomplish – to check for violations of environmental rules. Should violations be found, businesses are given the opportunity to fix the problem without fear of prosecution.

Businesses like self-audits because they receive protection from punishment for acting in good faith. Reasonable regulators like self-audits because they uncover violations that very well might have gone undetected. Self-audits are also good for the environment because they provide for timely corrections of problems and encourage businesses to do the right thing.

Those who cannot stand the notion that there is a way to protect the environment without relying on punishments, fines, and coercion say such laws allow companies to decide for themselves whether or not to obey environmental laws. This is hardly the case. Environmental standards are still on the books, and state regulatory agencies (and the federal government) can enforce them. No one can credibly suggest that Norton’s support for self-audits means she would fail to enforce the law.

The groups criticizing Gale Norton as somehow being outside the mainstream demonstrate nothing more than how far removed from rational thought they have become themselves. There is no reason for the Senate not to swiftly confirm her nomination.