NATION


Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles is in a pickle.


Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effectively delayed the drilling of 39,000 coalbed-methane wells in Wyoming's Powder River Basin - a major energy project Griles and the Bush administration had hoped to expedite (HCN, 11/5/01: Wyoming's powder keg ). The EPA rated Interior's environmental impact statement draft "environmentally unsatisfactory" (the worst possible rating), thereby requiring either a major rewrite, or a new document - either of which could delay drilling until 2004, well past Interior's goal of this September. In response, Griles sent the EPA a memo, urging the agency not to hamper methane development.


Now environmental groups are pointing fingers at Griles, and shouting, "Conflict of interest!" They claim he violated ethics rules by breaking a contract he signed in August, in which he agreed not to participate in official matters that could financially affect personal matters. Griles, a former oil and gas lobbyist, has represented energy industry big-wigs such as Arch Coal, Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, and Western Gas Resources, several of which have a major stake in the Powder River project, and are clients of a company formerly owned by Griles.


"Griles comes from the coal industry - he's worked for coal companies," says Kristin Sykes of Friends of the Earth. "He's got a personal interest in this."


Interior's lawyers say Griles did not violate his ethical contract, but have had him sign another - to "reemphasize" the first. Friends of the Earth plans to file a formal complaint with the Inspector General's Office.