Gale Norton: Was She a Shill for Shell on Shale?

Oil shale. Courtesy DOE.

A remarkable news item surfaced this past week that Gale Norton, President George W. Bush’s first Secretary of the Interior from 2001-2006, is under a federal criminal probe due to her potentially inappropriate, unethical, and illegal relationship with Royal Dutch Shell over the federal lands that a Shell subsidiary was awarded for oil shale development when Norton was Secretary.

A bit of background: oil shale — of which there are extensive deposits on Bureau of Land Management lands in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah — is one of the world’s dirtiest fuels. In fact, it isn’t oil at all – it is rock containing an oil-like hydrocarbon that must be extracted from the ground and heated to extreme temperatures in order to produce viable fuel. This has tremendous environmental impacts. If oil shale is commercially developed, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions could each increase by over 35,000 tons each year, 740,000 acre-feet of water (enough to supply over 350,000 families) would be required annually, and the development would cause the release of 105 million tons of carbon dioxide every year (80% more than was released by all electricity generation in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming in 2005). Not a pretty picture.

So how does Gale Norton fit into all of this? As the Los Angeles Times reports, each of the 5,000-acre lease tracts awarded to Shell during her tenure at Interior contains approximately $700 billion worth of recoverable oil.

Less than a year after Shell obtained these potentially lucrative leases, Norton left Interior to work for....Shell. And not just any old job at Shell; she was rewarded with the position of general counsel for unconventional oils, of which oil shale is the most prominent.

Apparently this cozy relationship was also a little too close for comfort for the Interior Department’s Inspector General. As reported by the Los Angeles Times last week, Norton is being investigated for both a law prohibiting government workers from engaging in conversations about employment with a company if they are involved in business transactions with that company, and “denial of honest services” fraud — breeching the public’s trust.

It will be interesting to see if any other “shoes will drop” regarding this issue in the weeks to come.

photo: Oil shale. Courtesy DOE.