GWB’s Cabinet Picks: Chat with CEI’s Myron Ebell

Text of online chat at washingtonpost

Text of online chat at with CEI’s Myron Ebell on George W. Bush’s cabinet selections

January 5, 2000




Copyright © Washington Post 2001


Editor’s Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



The environmental community is paying close attention to the records of three nominees for high-level posts in the Bush administration: Gale Norton for Interior Secretary, Spencer Abraham for Energy Secretary and Christine Todd-Whitman for EPA administrator.


Where do these two stand on issues like federal land usage, endangered species, and national monuments? What changes will they bring to current policy?


Myron Ebell is director of global warming and international environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of the nation’s free market and environmental public policy institutes. He is also chairman of the Cooler Heads Coalition, a subgroup of the National Consumer Coalition comprising two dozen nonprofit groups that question global warming theory and oppose the Kyoto Protocol, and a member of the executive committee of the Grassroots ESA Coalition.



Washington, D.C.: Have any of these nominees addressed the U.S.’s rapid, unsustainable population growth? It’s rarely mentioned, but you can’t have a workable environmental policy without addressing the effects having ever more people using land and resources.


Myron Ebell: I disagree with the premise of your question. Market economies and technological innovation allow more people to have less harmful environmental effects. Common ownership of resources and a stultified economy can do tremendous environmental damage even when the population is relatively low; look at the old Soviet Union, Albania, etc. Good afternoon Mr. Ebell and welcome. Would you please tell us a little bit about the Competitive Enterprise Institute and where you and your organization stand on Bush nominees Gale Norton, Spencer Abraham and Christine Todd-Whitman?


Myron Ebell: CEI is one of the nation’s leading free market public policy institutes. Our work focuses on regulatory issues, especially environmental regulations. CEI doesn’t officially support or oppose cabinet nominations. My own personal opinions are these: I think Gale Norton as Secretary of Interior and Spence Abraham as Secretary of Energy are superb choices. I think Gov. Whitman for EPA Administrator may turn out to be a good choice or may not. Her record is mixed as governor of New Jersey, and EPA is in great need of reform.


Falls Church, Va.: What is Ms. Norton’s background as related to environmental issues?


Myron Ebell: Gale Norton worked as a lawyer at Interior in the Reagan Administration and was attorney general of Colorado for eight years. She has been an outstanding advocate for environmental protection throughout her career. This has not made her a friend of the environmental pressure groups, who are much more interested in power and control over people than in environmental protection. Gale understands that secure property rights are a strong basis for protecting natural resources because ownership confers an interest in maintaining the value of those resources. Thus the stark difference in condition between our private ranches and forests and our National Forests and BLM lands.



Washington, D.C.: I thought we needed 60 votes from the Senate to confirm Bush’s nominees – why is it that Democrats think they have no power against Ashcroft and Norton?


Myron Ebell: Nomination requires a simple majority of those voting.



Washington, D.C.: More broadly than just environmental, but I hope you will answer. What should businesses expect from President-elect Bush? Specifically, any tax relief (Bush has proposed only individual tax relief)? How about the minimum wage? Any thoughts on the regulatory environment? Thanks!


Myron Ebell: My hope is that the Bush administration will not use regulatory policy to reward one industry or business over others or try to distort market decisions by subsidizing one technology over another. Past experiences strongly suggest that that sort of government interference often has bad environmental effects as well as hurting the economy. On taxes: repealing the inheritance tax, as Congress tried to do last year but Clinton vetoed it, would do great environmental good because it would mean that heirs to farm, ranch, and timber land will be under much less financial pressure to subdivide their property. Lowering tax rates is also “green” because greater wealth allows societies to increase environmental protection. The technological progress associated with economic growth is also a great plus for the environment. New technologies are generally much cleaner than older technologies.



Washington, D.C.: What changes do you expect to see in national park policy under the Bush administration?


Myron Ebell: I have no idea, but I would hope to see major changes. The National Parks are in bad shape, and for once the blame is not all the Clinton-Gore Administration’s. Management problems have been building up for decades. The NPS is charged by Congress with managing more and more Parks, many of which would be more appropriate as state or local parks, which has starved our great Parks of resources. Consequently, Yellowstone and Yosemite and the other great Parks are run down and need lots of attention. Another problem that should be addressed is the National Park Service culture, which is suited to the wide open spaces in the West, but not to many of our more recent Parks located in more populated areas. To be blunt, the National Park Service is not known as a good neighbor in places like Indiana Dunes. One thing that the new team could do immediately would be to put the scientists that Babbitt took out of the NPS and re-assigned to the National Biological Survey back into the Parks, where they could be working on the environmental problems in those Parks.



Washington, D.C.: What sort of person would CEI be interested in seeing as director of the National Park Service? Do you have any suggested nominees for the incoming administration?


Myron Ebell: First, someone who is professionally qualified but not a captive of the Park Service culture, which, as I replied to the last question, has some problems. Second, someone who wants to restore the great Parks and isn’t interested in continuing the mindless expansion of the system to include areas that shouldn’t be National Parks, but may well be suitable for state or local parks. Third, someone who respects the rights of private property owners whose property adjoins or is inside the Parks.



Virginia: What are the main differences between liberals and conservatives on environmental issues?


Myron Ebell: My experience is that conservatives care more about environmental quality and less about centralized control of resources.



Washington, D.C.: We all want clean air and water, we just differ on how to achieve it. Don’t the Bush nominees favor market incentives, as opposed to regulatory answers? And aren’t the EPA and groups like the Sierra Club against market incentives, precisely because there’s no one “in control, calling the shots?”


Myron Ebell: I agree. I think that the Bush approach will be much more market oriented and much less command-and-control. Private ownership is the key. When people own a resource, they have an incentive to take care of it. That’s why Gale Norton has such a big job at Interior. Many of our federal lands are in poor condition, and the Endangered Species Act poses such a threat to many landowners that it is having environmentally damaging effects.



Bethesda, Md.: What are you thoughts on Christine Todd-Whitman? How do you think she will run the EPA? Any major changes?


Myron Ebell: The first thing that I hope Gov. Whitman will do is lay down the law. That is, that she will make it clear that EPA must obey the laws and stop claiming regulatory authorities far beyond its legal authority. EPA needs major reform, which like reforming any bureaucracy will take a strong leader. I’m not sure she’s the ideal candidate, but I have hopes.



Washington, D.C.: Thank you for taking questions today. Do you know anything about Gale Norton’s background? What’s on her resume?


Myron Ebell: I would refer you to the Bush web site for a full resume, but I don’t know the address. News stories have given the highlights. I know firsthand that Gale Norton has done great work on property rights and federal lands issues, as attorney general of Colorado, as a lawyer at Interior, and as a lawyer in private practice.



Denver, Colo.: What do you think Gale Norton and the Republicans will do regarding enforcing the Endangered Species Act? Enforcement that many enviros think has been lax under Clinton.


Myron Ebell: First, I think Sec. Norton and her team will obey the law and enforce the law. This will be rather different from Secretary Babbitt’s elastic approach that the ESA’s “regulatory flexibility” allows almost anything. Thus special deals have been cut with big corporate landowners and small landowners have been shut down. The problem with the ESA is that it’s not a law, and it’s certainly not a management program. It’s a regulatory regime that allows regulators to treat different people in the same situations differently. This is why rural people are so opposed to the ESA. That does not mean that rural people are opposed to protecting endangered wildlife. They do care, but they see what havoc the ESA brings wherever it is applied in all its heaviness. The challenge that the new administration faces, assuming there are not the votes in Congress to reform and replace the ESA with a conservation program that saves species and doesn’t violate property rights, is to enforce the ESA but not steal people’s property and further alienate rural Americans. It’s not clear that this is possible as the law is written and has been interpreted in a lot of court cases. Rural Americans will be on the side of protecting wildlife when they are not threatened by Fish and Wildlife regulators.



San Francisco, Calif.: Conservatives care more about environmental quality? I must have missed something. Could you provide me with a couple of instances, say over the past decade, where a conservative politician has made any effort at all to improve the environment? Thank you.


Myron Ebell: Rep. John Shadegg tried to replace the ESA with a conservation program that would actually protect endangered wildlife, but was branded as an environmental terrorist by the major environmental pressure groups, who care little about saving habitat, but a great deal about locking up resources. Thus their support for Clinton’s road moratorium in the National Forests, which will help the forests burn down at a much faster rate. Other conservatives have tried to turn over federal lands to state or private management, which would be a big plus. Repealing the death tax would be the single biggest antidote to urban sprawl that has been proposed by anyone. And it would also be one of the best actions to protect endangered species habitat. The last Congress passed legislation to repeal the death tax, but Clinton vetoed it and the environmental pressure groups supported the veto for the most part.



Washington, D.C.: One can support free market approaches to environmental problems, but governments — federal, state, local — will have a major role in this area. To suggest otherwise, to suggest that government should not in principle have a role in environmental protection is fantasy. What should be the role of government in environmental protection?


Myron Ebell: I can’t give you a precise answer, but it should be much less intrusive and regulatorily heavy handed than it is now. Government actions create lots of environmental problems and solve or adequately address fewer than is often claimed in the news media. For example, the ESA didn’t save the peregrine or the bald eagle, as Secretary Babbitt claims. Private conservation efforts saved the peregrine. The first answer proposed to an environmental problem shouldn’t be a reflexive call for government intervention.



Boston, Mass.: Are you a supporter of the anti-environmental wise use movement, of which Gale Norton is a strong supporter?


Myron Ebell: The wise use movement is not anti-environmental. It is composed of people who live in rural areas and actually have first-hand knowledge of the land and managing natural resources. Consequently, they don’t believe what they read in the Sierra Club because they know much of it is false. Urban Americans are so out of touch with the environment because they believe what they are told by the people who have the biggest bullhorns. This is not their fault, but it is a big political problem. That is why nearly every rural county voted overwhelmingly against Gore. They have had enough of the disastrous environmental policies of Clinton, Gore, Babbitt, Browner, etc., which were based on fantasy and were pursued for cynical political reasons. Gale Norton is certainly sympathetic to the concerns of the wise use movement, of which I am proud to be a part (having grown up on a ranch in in eastern Oregon, where I had to live with the destructive management of federal lands), but I wouldn’t describe her as a leader in that movement. Gale Norton does have first hand experience of the issues that confront her, she knows that the West is in bad shape because of the federal land agencies, and she is a friend to rural Americans.



Arlington, Va.: What should be decided about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?


Myron Ebell: I think that the Arctic National Wildife Refuge should be opened to oil and gas exploration. The area on the coastal plain that would be drilled is just a few thousand acres. The refuge itself is around 19 million acres. Ongoing exploration in other parts of the north slope has not led to major environmental degradation, and newer technology does even less damage. I think the alternative is offshore drilling, which is what BP and the Canadians are doing. The claim that wildlife will disappear is absurd and refuted by the evidence since Prudhoe Bay was developed.



Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Ebell – How would you like to see Secretary-designate Norton use private property rights in to further protect the environment?


Myron Ebell: I hope that Secretary Norton encourages private conservation, respects property rights in her actions, and advocates changes in legislation to use the incentives provided by private ownership to protect the environment.



Minneapolis, Minn.: Would you please explain WHY turning over control of federal land would necessarily improve their quality? It seems that if someone can make more money in an activity that is detrimental to the environment than they can in one that protects is, absent regulatory control they have no incentive to protect that land.


Additionally, what is the REASON that ending the death tax would work to solve sprawl and protect species. The death tax is a primary motive for many people to give to charities, including enviro and preservation groups. Absent the death tax, the motivation for many people to continue such giving would decline.


Myron Ebell: Your arguments are theoretical. I think the vast majority of historical experience is on my side. This is not to say that every private landowner manages his land well. But government ownership seldom leads to good management. The land trusts are a very mixed bag. Some of the big ones do great environmental damage. I favor abolishing all tax subsidies that encourage people turning over their land to them.



Albuquerque, N.M.: What role do you see the Council on Environmental Quality playing in this new administration?


Myron Ebell: It would be great to see some straight-shooting real scientists at CEQ, who weren’t expected to tow the political line of the administration and would give objective advice and counsel.



Silver Spring, Md.: What response, if any, could Bush or his appointees make to Clinton’s announcement today regarding blocking any new roads and timber harvests in the West? How final is this decision, that The Post claims would be “an uphill battle” for Bush to reverse?


Myron Ebell: They should look at it closely when they get into office. The road moratorium has many detrimental environmental and local economic effects that have not been considered by the current administration. Moreover, huge amounts of natural resources are being locked up. This review should be done as part of a review of fire policies and ecosystem management policies.



Ashland, Ore.: Wirthlin Worldwide, a public opinion group usually associated with Republican candidates and issues, recently reported that “two out of three Americans say we need to protect the environment no matter what it costs.” How does this square with “free market environmentalism?”


Myron Ebell: Well, then those people should be devoting a lot more of their family budgets to environmental protection.



Falls Church, Va.: Are you hearing any buzz yet about possible nominees to head the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management? What’s the incoming administration’s position toward operation of the national park system?


Myron Ebell: No, I’m out of the loop.



Myron Ebell: Thanks for the questions. I’ve enjoyed answering them and hope that my answers were at least mildly useful and informative.