A lobbyist whose firm represents the National Mining Association is in line to become the No. 2 person at the U.S. Interior Department, which regulates mining on public land -- unless environmentalists succeed in a long-shot campaign to defeat his nomination.
Steven Griles' nomination is expected to be taken up soon by the Senate. Opponents criticize him for his close ties to the energy and mining industries, and point to what they call his strongly pro-industry record as an Interior official in the Reagan administration. Groups working to defeat Griles include Friends of the Earth, The Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.
In 1986, Griles angered many members of Congress by allowing the controversial sale of about 17,000 acres at $2.50 per acre under terms of the General Mining Law of 1872. The buyers quickly realized a profit of nearly $37 million, congressional investigators determined. Among those who defended Griles' decision at the time was Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyo., who is now the vice president.
Griles now says he did his best to safeguard the public's interest in the deal, which allowed the public to retain ownership of gas- and oil-drilling rights on the property. He says he had little choice because court rulings favored the buyers, and that it was time to end a long-running legal dispute between them and the government.
"I am a problem solver," Griles said in an interview last week.
Members of Congress at the time condemned the action as a giveaway. Rep. Morris Udall, the Arizona Democrat who was chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, called it "a real estate fire sale without a fire."
If confirmed by the Senate, Griles would exert major influence over a Bush administration rewrite of rules governing mining on public land. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in a four-part series last week, revealed a pattern of mining companies going bankrupt and leaving taxpayers millions of dollars in cleanup costs.
After leaving government, Griles worked as a mining executive and then became a lobbyist with Washington, D.C.-based National Environmental Strategies. The firm's clients include the National Mining Association, Energy Corp. of America and Dominion Resources, one of the nation's largest power producers.
"He's an ally of the industry," National Mining Association spokesman John Grasser said of Griles when President Bush nominated him in March. "He's a very well-grounded individual, and he will have a better appreciation of the issues than we have seen."
Griles' appointment was approved on an 18-4 vote in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Among those voting no was Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is expected to lead a fight against Griles' confirmation by the full Senate. Wyden also tried to block confirmation of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate.
"We have not been out there making any wild promises about the vote on this," Wyden said of the Griles vote.
"What I hope is that he will take the position at the agency -- I assume he will be (confirmed) -- that really does reflect a more balanced approach. But I'm skeptical."
As Norton's second in command, Griles will have influence on a broad range of issues affecting national parks, Indian tribes, drilling for oil and gas, mining on public lands, and other matters.
Environmental groups opposing Griles' appointment say that during his time as deputy director of the Office of Surface Mining and assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary for lands and minerals management in the Reagan administration, he:
Gutted federal enforcement of coal strip-mining rules. At the time, members of Congress criticized him for allowing more than $100 million in fines against coal companies to build up without being paid. Griles says he started a system to prevent miners with unpaid fines from getting additional mining permits, but acknowledges many never paid.
"What was I going to do?" he asked. "I had bankrupt companies, people who are no longer in business, who have no assets."
Worked to suppress a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that predicted a 94 percent chance of an oil spill if a California off-shore drilling lease were granted. The agency softened its opposition after Griles wrote that, "The FWS memorandum is part of the public record and could prove very damaging to this lease sale." Though critics say he squelched dissent, Griles says he simply met with his equal at the Fish and Wildlife Service and scientists from both agencies to iron out their differences.
"The decision maker from the Fish and Wildlife Service was presented with both scientific discussion and debate and the scientists resolved their dispute," he said. "There was no dissenting minority opinion. We had a Department of Interior opinion."
Went easy on the mining industry. When the General Accounting Office recommended that mining companies be forced to post financial bonds to ensure cleanup of their operations, Griles responded that it would cost too much for some companies and wrote, "The real question is how much exploratory effort has been or could be stifled by the punitive practice of bonding all because of the sins of a few."
Griles says that he has never lobbied on behalf of the "hard-rock" miners and that as a federal coal mine regulator in the Reagan administration he cracked down on repeat violators.
Activists opposing Griles' confirmation say the shift to Democratic control of the Senate earlier this month may help their cause. But two top Democratic Party leaders hail from mining states and strongly back the industry: Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Majority Whip Harry Reid of Nevada.
Sue Gunn of The Wilderness Society acknowledged that environmentalists fell short in their challenge of Norton, who was confirmed on a 75-24 vote, but said much has changed since January.
"Bush's record on the environment is starting to look bad. The public is starting to notice," she said.
©1999-2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer