By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Will the oil-and-gas man at the Interior Department bring drilling back to California’s coast?
George W. Bush’s number-two man at the Interior Department never intended to slow the progress of drilling along the California coast. But in 1989, that’s exactly what J. Steven Griles did. Griles worked at Interior during the Reagan administration, before leaving in 1989 to build a lobbying firm that represented some of the biggest names in oil, gas and mining. Nine days before G.W. Bush was sworn in as president, Griles called industry leaders to the Washington offices of the Petroleum Institute to draw up a wish list for Vice President Cheney. The meeting was a prelude to Griles’ appointment as assistant secretary of the interior. Since the Senate confirmed him in 2001, Griles hasn’t let his government paycheck stand between him and the interests of the industry that made him a wealthy man. In fact, he still draws a quarter of a million dollars a year from a K Street lobbying firm that represents oil, gas and mining. At the same time he also gets an Interior Department salary.
How does he do it? Let’s say that Steve Griles is smarter than the rest of us. It also helps that the country seems to have lost its collective gag reflex regarding conflicts of interest and ethics in high government office.
But back to 1989. Members of the state’s congressional delegation at the time — Mel Levine, Leon Panetta, Barbara Boxer, Henry Waxman and others — will recall how Griles bullied U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials who warned of dire environmental risks associated with drilling for oil off the Northern California coast. The record of the Griles affair can be found in the library of former Congressman Panetta at Cal State Monterey. That’s good. Because the files are so stale it’s not likely they can be found at the Interior Department. And since October 2001, when Attorney General Ashcroft advised agency directors that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is no longer a high priority, even current public documents are hard to locate. A recent FOIA request, for example, failed to turn up a critical document regarding some dirty work Griles did for industry after Bush brought him back to the Interior Department. (I did, however, manage to find the document at the EPA.)
In 1988, the 1968 Santa Barbara oil spill was not yet ancient history. Except to maybe Ronald Reagan, which seems kind of odd, as his ranch is just up the mountain from the environmental disaster that led to passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Coastal Act. Yet Reagan wasn’t about to let the truth discourage him from handing the California coast over to oil companies. (Remember, it was Reagan who said “facts are stupid things.”) As his second presidential term wound down, Reagan was still trying to turn the California coasts over to the drilling companies. Steve Griles was his point man.
The office of Land and Minerals Management, where Griles was then second in command, had done a draft environmental-impact statement that gave the green light to offshore drilling in Northern California. There was one hitch. The Fish & Wildlife Service — also part of the Interior Department — had done its own study and found that drilling off the northern coast posed a serious threat to the environment. So serious that F&W biologists concluded it should not be allowed and Minerals Management should come up with environmentally sound alternatives. The Fish & Wildlife memo was filled with dire warnings and concluded that “Minerals Management has inaccurately painted a picture of a routine operation with few potential impacts when in fact . . . [drilling could cause] devastating impacts on coastal resources.”
But the critical memo disappeared, to be replaced by a version much more favorable to drilling in the two tracts off the coast of Mendocino and Humboldt counties. A year later, Santa Monica Congressman Mel Levine found out why Fish & Wildlife had rewritten the memo. A letter from Levine’s staff to Leon Panetta, who then represented Carmel Valley, described a “smoking gun” Levine found. It was a memo Griles had written to Fish & Wildlife, savaging F&W’s critique of the industry-friendly environmental-impact statement.
Angered by Griles’ bullying federal officials into suppressing information, 29 members of the state’s House delegation, senators Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson signed a letter demanding that the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior block the sale of the two leases. By then, Reagan had retired to Rancho del Cielo. The letter — and a press conference organized by Levine’s office — discouraged Poppy Bush from fighting for a drilling program that included the forest of jack-up rigs and production platforms that give the Texas Gulf Coast its peculiar charm.
That was 1989. In 2001, Griles’ close ties to industry slowed Senate confirmation to the job he now holds at Interior. But he promised wary senators that he would sell his client list and close his lobbying firm. The sale brings him $284,000 a year for four years. It is totally legal — even if it doesn’t pass the Texas Smell Test (admittedly a low standard). He also signed an agreement promising to recuse himself from policy decisions involving former clients. Then he jumped into one of the biggest environmental fights in the West — which involves the interests of a couple of his former clients.