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.


The coal-bed-methane (CBM) drilling program in northeastern Wyoming is one of the projects that came out of the energy-industry socials Dick Cheney hosted shortly after taking office. Under Griles’ guidance, Interior is planning 51,000 methane wells, thousands of miles of access roads and 30,000 miles of pipeline in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The Powder River CBM play is the biggest natural-gas project ever undertaken on lands where the federal government owns the mineral rights. It will produce a year’s worth of gas and enough water to turn the state of Rhode Island into a foot-deep lake — a blessing in arid Wyoming if the water weren’t so saline that it destroys pasturelands.

As the Interior Department cleared the way for drilling, the EPA came to the rescue. A six-volume, 900-page draft environmental-impact statement that cost the agency more than $1 million to complete gave the project the lowest possible environmental rating. It warned that CBM water will so increase the salinity of the Bell Fourche and Tongue rivers that they will no longer be suitable for agriculture.

Griles went after the EPA as he did Fish & Wildlife 13 years earlier. He wrote Assistant EPA Director Linda Fisher and warned her that her regional director was issuing a report that could put the methane program at risk. In Dick Cheney’s home state there is no congressional delegation like the one that stopped Griles in California. (In fact, the state’s two U.S. senators and one representative support the drilling program.) This time around, Griles easily beat a federal agency into submission. Even after The New York Times found that drilling now has coal-bed methane “bubbling like champagne” from the Belle Fourche River. And the program is just beginning.

Last year, the enviro watchdogs at Friends of the Earth did an FOIA request for Griles’ daily calendars and found him to be less than fastidious in avoiding meetings with his former clients. Yet Griles has survived an in-house ethics investigation and will probably survive Senator Joe Lieberman’s request for a congressional investigation into conflicts of interest.

After all, J. Steven Griles is a player. He’s already met with Bush twice to discuss offshore drilling. Friends of the Earth’s Kristen Sykes also discovered that Griles has attended 10 meetings regarding oil and gas leases off the coast of California. He’s whipped Wyoming into submission. He appears to be preparing to do the same to California.

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