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Infamy of the former interior secretary, Gale Norton

Denver Post

Greene: Integrity breaks new ground at Interior Department

Posted: 10/22/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT

It takes a special something to become the first and only member of George W. Bush’s Cabinet investigated formally for criminal corruption.

That distinction goes to Colorado’s own Gale Norton.

I write not to inflict more infamy on the former interior secretary as federal grand jury subpoenas make their way into her mailbox.

Rather, it’s worth noting how far the Interior Department has come since Norton, her successor and their one-time boss, the former oilman turned president, were giving away oil-shale leases like samples at Costco.

It’s tough to keep straight all the scandals that plagued the Bush Interior Department, what with its Jack Abramoff entanglements and the sex, drug use and graft rampant in its oil and gas royalties office.

Let’s not forget the stink for which Norton is being probed. After resigning from interior, she took a job as an adviser to the oil-shale division of Royal Dutch Shell — the company to which she had granted three of the much-coveted six leases to extract oil from Bureau of Land Management land.

After 100 years of mostly fruitless efforts, oil shale is still, at best, experimental. The leases allow companies to test technologies that ram-rod rock with massive heated prongs. With virtually no accountability, it gives them free rein to expand their research into five commercial developments in Colorado.

A grand jury is investigating whether Norton illegally used her interior job to benefit the company. (You think?) She was subpoenaed last week.

As if the first round of leases wasn’t bad enough, the Bush administration’s handling of the second was even worse. In January, days before Bush left office, Norton’s interior successor proposed adding leases that would have given an advantage to Shell and the three companies holding the other existing leases. It also would have added large swatches of testing grounds in Colorado — potentially worth billions — while lowering royalties to the feds.

The move was a giveaway to Bush’s oil buddies just as he was walking out the door.

What does this mean for you and me?

Colorado is to oil shale what Newcastle is to coal, estimated to hold more than 1.5 trillion barrels. Our economy went bust with the collapse of oil-shale exploration in 1982.

If our motherlode were to be tapped to its full capacity, heating rocks, cooling them and processing the oil would — under the current state-of-the-art technology proposed by Shell — require 10 power plants the size of the largest plant currently operating in Colorado, according to data gleaned from a Rand Corp. analysis. Extraction also could drain the state’s dwindling water supplies.

“We need to decide whether we dedicate water for oil shale to fuel taxis in New York City or whether we use it to fuel growth in Colorado,” says Dave Little, chief planner for Denver Water.

To his credit, Ken Salazar halted the second round of leases when he took over the Interior Department for the Obama administration in January. On Tuesday, he ordered a second investigation into Bush’s latest oil-shale shenanigans.

Salazar walks a fine line, given what’s at stake in terms of production, and that Obama won office partly by calling for energy independence.

Let’s hope this Coloradan bases his next move on sound science and not jockeying for his next job.

Susan Greene writes Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at 303-954-1989 or [email protected]. and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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