Norton staff rewrote Arctic drilling data
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Ignoring data that showed the caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be harmed by oil and gas drilling, aides to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton supplied erroneous testimony to a Senate committee debating the issue, according to documents obtained by an environmental group.

According to the documents and The Washington Post, two Norton aides rewrote and added their own conclusions to staff-supplied data that gave a more balanced view of development in the hotly contested area of Alaska. By doing so, they picked out information that supported the Bush administration's push to open the refuge's coastal plain to drilling.

After being asked by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee four questions about drilling and its impacts on the environment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife was asked to provide answers to Norton. Fish and Wildlife is the Interior agency that oversees the refuge system and is a purely scientific bureau.

But when the answers were received, Norton's legislative aide and senior counselor changed them. Also, her staff consulted a non-government report -- funded by BP Exploration, a major oil company -- for additional information, reported The Post today.

The result was what one anonymous Fish and Wildlife employee called a slanted view of development. "We tried to present all the facts, but she only passed along the ones she liked," the employee said of Norton's formal response to the committee.

"And to pass along facts that are false, well, that's obviously inappropriate," the employee told The Post.

Among the issues in dispute is the effect of drilling on the Porcupine caribou herd. The Gwich'in Nation, who depend on the herd for subsistence and cultural purposes, oppose development because they say it would affect the herd's calving grounds.

Relying in part on the oil-funded report, the answers provided to the committee, however, said the impact on the herd -- including the effect on calving -- would be limited. She also said the herd has spent 11 out of the past 18 years outside the refuge. The opposite, according to Fish and Wildlife, is true.

Norton's press secretary Mark Pfeifle admitted to the discrepancy but he told The Post it was merely an error. He also defended the use of an outside consultant, saying Norton believes in relying on more sources of information to arrive at a decision.

"One of the cornerstones of this department is to reach out and listen to a wide variety of people and sources to determine the best information and the best policy," Pfeifle told the paper. "Sometimes we look for guidance inside the department; sometimes we look outside as well."

The dispute is likely to raise debate about drilling. Republicans in the Senate are eager to bring the issue to the floor after President Bush prodded them to act. Democrat leaders oppose drilling.

The Clinton administration has been criticized for changing staff-supplied data to support federal recognition of tribes. Former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover employed an outside consultant to work on the acknowledgment petitions of a number of tribes, according to documents.

The documents in question were obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a group which opposed Norton's nomination to head the Interior. In a press release today, PEER's national field director, Eric Wingerter, calls on Norton to resign.

PEER has published the documents noting the difference between the Fish and Wildlife information and the answers submitted to Congress.

Get the Documents:
What FWS Said [PDF] | What Norton Said [PDF] | Comparison

Get the Post Report:
Departmental Differences Show Over ANWR Drilling (The Washington Post 10/19)

Relevant Links:
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
Oil Issues in ANWR, US Fish and Wildlife -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site -

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