Environmental Extremists


A recent cartoon in the New York Daily News depicts Norton as a flack for child-poisoning industries—and, in a parody of George W. Bush's campaign promise to leave no child behind, puts a slogan in her mouth: Leave no child alive.

The cartoon refers to Norton's work as a lobbyist for a company involved in litigation over its past manufacture of lead paint (she maintains that the company took steps to reduce the hazards long before the federal government did). But it's part of a more general effort to demonize Norton as the polluter's best friend—and the Bush administration as a haven for extremists.

Some of the controversy has to do with disputed facts that are not easy to sort out. Her critics charge that, as attorney general of Colorado, she allowed corporate polluters to get away with murder; her defenders claim the inaction was primarily the fault of the Democratic administration of Governor Roy Romer and point to other cases in which Norton aggressively enforced environmental protection laws.

At bottom, however, this is a dispute about ideology. Norton's environmentalist foes see her as too pro-business, and thus presumably antienvironment. One charge against Norton is that she championed Colorado's "self-audit" law—which a number of commentators, from ABC News correspondent Linda Douglass to Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman, have described as allowing companies to police themselves on their compliance with environmental regulations.

This sounds so crazy that one can only wonder how Colorado could have enacted such a law. But, of course, that's not the way it works. Self-auditing means that if a company discovers, reports, and corrects environmental violations on its own, it won't face fines or other criminal or civil sanctions (unless the violations were very egregious). In Colorado, this legislation had bipartisan support and was signed by Governor Romer.

In an article on the MSNBC Web site, Alterman sneers that "presumably, Norton does not believe in self-policing for any law- breaking other than the environmental kind." But in fact, amnesty for minor lawbreakers who turn themselves in has been extended to a number of other offenses, from tax evasion to illegal gun possession. It's an incentive to encourage reporting of violations that might have never come to the attention of the authorities otherwise.

Norton is also under fire for backing oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Again, this is not a lunatic fringe position. Congress authorized such exploration in 1996 (it was stopped by President Clinton's veto). President Bush favors it as well, so it's hardly shocking that his pick for secretary of the interior would share this view.

Myron Ebell, a policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which advocates a market-based approach to environmental issues, argues that the panic-mongering is unjustified. Under the proposal Bush and Norton endorse, less than 10,000 acres of the 19- million-acre refuge would be opened to exploration. And Ebell points out that in a different part of Alaska, Prudhoe Bay was opened to oil drilling in the 1970s, with no damage to wildlife.

Often, the activists who brand Norton an ideologue are themselves driven by ideological dogma more than by practical concerns about pollution or conservation. Many view business as the enemy and seem to be more passionate about punishment than about remedies. For some, environmentalism is less a political program than a substitute religion (which, in its in extreme form, casts humanity in the role of devil—"a plague upon ourselves and the Earth," in the words of National Park Service ecologist David Graber in a 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times).

For those who are inspired by such quasi-religious fervor, it doesn't matter if drilling for oil and gas in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge can be done safely. It's simply a sacrilege, akin to turning a church into a stable.

The overwhelming majority of Americans want clean air, clean water, and wilderness conservation. But there are different ways of achieving these goals, including strategies based on market incentives, respect for private property, and a collaborative rather than antagonistic attitude toward business. Will these ideas work? We won't know unless we consider each proposal on its merit, rather than vilify anything that doesn't conform to environmental orthodoxy.