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Know the West

Encounters with the Ex-Secretary


In two appearances at the Aspen Environment Forum this week, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and ex-Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt seemed to revel in the impolitic. Offshore drilling is an "unregulated frontier culture full of cowboy operators," he said during a panel discussion with Shell VP Libby Cheney, Consortium for Ocean Leadership president Robert Gagosian, and actor Kevin Costner. ("I'm really flattered by this turnout," moderator Joel Achenbach dryly told the packed house.)

Babbitt acknowledged that the BP spill "could have happened on my watch," for the Minerals Management Service is "woefully inadequate" in its oversight of offshore drilling. Its recent reorganization, he said, is merely "cosmetic regulation."

If we want to drill in deep water, Babbitt emphasized, we must not just reduce the risk of accidents, but eliminate it (This being an impossible goal, it would follow that Babbitt opposes all deepwater drilling, but he didn't address that implication). In response to a question about the less-publicized impacts of onshore oil and gas drilling, Babbitt didn't hesitate: "Comprehensive reform is the order of the day." Video of the session is available here.

Later in the afternoon, Babbitt sparred genially with Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, with whom he has battled in and out of court for some three decades. "The American Southwest is not suffering from water scarcity," he insisted, but rather from a lack of incentives to conserve water or use it efficiently. We need to put a price on water, he said -- one that reflects its real value -- and make it transferable.

Mulroy took a grimmer view of the situation, pointing out that Lake Powell is now 55 percent full, and Mead stands at 41 percent. "We've essentially lost one of the large reservoirs of the Colorado," she said. But she was sweeter than reclaimed wastewater to the ex-Secretary, who, during his tenure, brought about a so-called peace treaty among the seven Colorado River states. "I miss you dearly," she said. "I've worked in this job under four Secretaries of the Interior, and bar none Bruce was the best."