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Corporate Takeover: Symbol of a Shift at Interior
Published on Wednesday, May 16, 2001 in the Washington Post
Corporate Takeover
Symbol of a Shift at Interior
Griles Represents Movement of Pro-Industry, Anti-Regulation Conservatives
by John Mintz and Eric Pianin
As a top official in the Interior Department under James G. Watt, J. Steven Griles argued for oil drilling off the California coast. He pressed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration, and urged cutting the fees paid by coal companies for operating on federal land. On leaving government, Griles went to work for the mining industry he once regulated, then as a lobbyist for utilities and the oil business.

They're stacking the agency with operatives for industries that drill, mine and pollute.

Mike Casey
Environmental Working Group
Today, the Senate will begin considering President Bush's nomination of Griles as deputy secretary of the interior, the second in command at the department, with broad day-to-day responsibilities for everything from national parks and Indian affairs to mining, logging and mineral exploration on public lands.

The choice of Griles, 53, is emblematic of the Bush administration's push to fill key environmental jobs with conservative Republicans with strong industry ties, especially at the Interior Department. Griles's soon-to-be-boss and fellow Watt protégé, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, has assembled a team of like-minded conservatives who distrust federal regulation and want to maximize opportunities for development, a dramatic shift from the environmentalist bent of the Clinton Interior Department under Bruce Babbitt.

"They're stacking the agency with operatives for industries that drill, mine and pollute," said Mike Casey, spokesman for the activist Environmental Working Group.

Patricia Lynn Scarlett, nominated as assistant secretary for policy, is president of the libertarian Reason Foundation, which advocates replacing environmental regulations with private stewardship of lands. Denver lawyer Bennett W. Raley, nominee for assistant secretary for water and science, once advocated repeal of the Endangered Species Act. Boise lawyer William Gerry Myers III, Bush's pick as Interior's solicitor, filed a lawsuit on behalf of cattlemen to overturn Clinton-era grazing regulations.

But of all the nominees, Griles has generated the most concern among environmentalists because he would have the most important job, has the longest track record in public office and comes with the biggest reputation for aggressively pushing his views that environmental regulations should be loosened and the federal government's involvement reduced. During his last stint at Interior, he was twice accused of suppressing department studies -- one on offshore drilling, the other on federal coal royalties -- that conflicted with his views, charges that Griles denies.

Industry officials and other critics of the Clinton Interior Department say his addition would help bring a more reasonable approach at an agency with huge influence over how large swaths of public land, especially in the West, are managed.

National Mining Association spokesman Karen Batra said her group, a longtime Griles client, enthusiastically endorses him. "He's worked mining regulatory issues for years on behalf of industry, and he's worked as a regulator," she said. "We look forward to working with him."

For his part, Griles says his outlook has changed over the years and that he now favors a more "balanced" approach to running the department, one assuring environmentalists equal footing with industry.

"Many of us have matured, we've learned," Griles said in an interview. "I consider myself a problem-solver, one who can try to listen to all the parties involved, and try to take a balanced approach to any and all issues."

Griles began as a top official in Interior's Office of Surface Mining (OSM). In his previous job, as Virginia's senior mine regulator, Griles helped coordinate the state's lawsuit against a new federal mining law. Now, he was being asked to enforce that very same 1977 law, which was hated by the mine industry.

Later that year, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 that the law was constitutional, a department lawyer was on the phone with Griles. "We won," she told him, referring to Interior. "No," she recalls him saying, "we lost." Griles denied making that remark.

Griles's main tasks included rewriting Carter-era mining regulations, usually making it harder for federal inspectors to cite violations, and pushing enforcement responsibility to the states, where many mining regulators were sympathetic to local firms.

To Griles and his allies, the agency was too heavy-handed, and had to be redirected to allow mine operators more freedom in attaining environmental standards. Some Interior lawyers who worked with him on such efforts said at times Griles went too far in pursuing his agenda. The changes Griles enshrined "helped cause devastation in the coalfields" as federal inspectors' power weakened, said environmental lawyer Walt Morris, who worked closely with Griles as an Interior attorney in the 1980s.

Griles disputes these assertions, and said the agency was stronger when he left than when he arrived. He notes that he took some actions miners didn't like, such as cracking down on renegade firms that go bankrupt and reappear under new names. "He's not a rape-the-environment guy," said Carl Close, a retired OSM official who worked closely with Griles.

But Griles was so intent on disseminating power to the states, Close said, that he squeezed much of the life out of the agency. "He came with a vow to dismantle, eliminate OSM."

Many tough mine inspectors quit, asserting that Griles and his allies pushed them out. In 1982, Bruce Boyens -- whom Griles praised in the interview for his mining expertise -- resigned as a senior OSM official in Tennessee, convinced that Griles's attempt to move him to a headquarters job was an effort to silence him. "He played the industry's tune, don't regulate," said Boyens, now a union lawyer. Upon receiving complaints that a subordinate was too tough, Griles "would call inspectors I oversaw and criticize their work, yet he wasn't on the ground to see it," Boyens said.

Controversy followed Griles as he was promoted to bigger jobs overseeing Interior agencies dealing with lands and minerals. In 1987 he led a massive effort to stop California officials from regulating offshore oil drilling.

In 1988 a draft report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded a that federal sale of drilling leases would be "potentially devastating" for coastal wildlife. In a memo, Griles said the study was biased and overstated, and "could prove very damaging to this lease sale." Weeks later a new version was written -- without the conclusions in the first report.

A year later, after the Exxon Valdez tanker spill resurrected fears about drilling, congressional Democrats unearthed the reports and accused Griles of suppressing the earlier study. Griles denied it, saying the rewritten report stemmed from a "dialogue" he set up between Fish and Wildlife and pro-drilling Interior officials.

Similar allegations were raised when Griles sought to reduce coal royalties for mining on federal land, from 8 percent to as low as 5 percent. Big Utah coal companies and utilities backed his plan -- except one firm, Unelco, which would be financially hurt by a royalty cut.

Interior's Bureau of Land Management concluded the plan was unjustified, but Griles, who oversaw the agency, said its analysis was deficient. Soon the agency rewrote its findings, removing the skeptical analysis.

Kay McIff, a lawyer for Unelco, said in public filings with Interior that Griles "suppressed" the earlier conclusions. Griles "has taken on the role of an advocate and industry spokesman, contrary to the accepted objective role of a public official," McIff said in one filing. Griles said his actions were proper and that he simply responded to troubles in the mining business.

In January 1989, after Griles announced he was taking a coal company job, he called Close, who had oversight over Griles's new employer and was viewed as one of the few aggressive OSM officials left. Griles urged him to leave his mining enforcement job and move to another agency, which was uninvolved in inspecting coal mines, Close said, and had other top officials call. "It was obviously part of Griles' plan to turn out the lights at OSM," Close said. Griles says the job he wanted Close to take had some power over mine policy, and denies trying to help his future employer.

At the United Co., where Griles was a vice president, one of his main tasks was helping oversee its Dal-Tex mine in West Virginia. The mine -- one of the nation's largest "mountaintop removal" mines -- stirred controversy because miners detonated mountain ridges and filled in valleys, burying trees and streams.

Neighbors, environmental lawyers and mine regulators complained of boulders flying into homes, and choking dust that worsened neighbors' allergies and asthma. United massively expanded the mine's size, and set up huge coal-loading machines that ran 24 hours a day, right next to homes. Griles acknowledged some problems at the mine, but said he drew up ambitious reclamation plans with state officials.

"I was hired to be a problem-solver," he said. "We reduced the number of violations and improved environmental compliance." But United sold off the mine in 1992 before much of the cleanup began.

Upon leaving the coalfields, Griles returned to Washington to became a coal and oil lobbyist. One client was Occidental Petroleum Corp., which wanted to loosen clean air regulations. Large utilities and the Edison Electric Institute hired Griles for help on global warming and airborne toxic substances.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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