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Opinion: Columnists

One of President Obama's most radical Interior nominees is confronted by Sen. John Barrasso

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Ron Arnold,Columnists,Barack Obama,Senate,Interior,Analysis,Mining,Oil,Natural Gas

If Rhea S. Suh is confirmed by the Senate, she would have the power to block natural gas recovery and eradicate resource production on vast swaths of America’s federal lands, the coastal continental shelf, and astonishing amounts of private property.

Suh is President Obama’s nominee for assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks in the Department of the Interior.

She would control two major bureaucracies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (9,000 employees and more than 150 million acres) and the National Park Service (21,989 employees and 84.4 million acres, including more than 4.3 million acres in private ownership).

Such power in Suh’s hands would be a disaster for resource production and the national economy.

She spent more than a decade from 1998 to 2009 working for two major Big Green foundations, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ($7.4 billion assets), and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation ($6.3 billion in assets).

Suh is an alumna of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, which includes more than 200 Big Green foundations that are dedicated to stopping development of America's abundant natural resources.

She joined the Interior Department in 2009 as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, where she converted the mining-friendly Minerals Management Service into three industry-punishing agencies.

Suh’s track record shows nothing but opposition to tapping America's natural resources.

But something unexpected happened Dec. 12 during Suh's confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso read from a 2007 statement by Suh in which she said natural gas development is “easily the single greatest threat to the ecological integrity of the West.”

The quote came from an interview published in a Hewlett Foundation newsletter.

“If confirmed,” Barrasso said, “it will allow you to essentially stop natural gas production … so I want to know how members of the Senate who support natural gas could support your nomination.”

Suh — a master manager and strategist not to be trifled with — was unruffled by Barrasso's question.

She responded with a declaration of support for Obama’s "all-of-the-above" energy strategy “in which natural gas is a hugely important component,” then smoothly and gracefully explained that her grant making at Packard and Hewlett was solely “to enable conservation solutions that were balanced with development, as well as preservation.”

Barrasso was not impressed:

“I would also like to read from an op-ed by the Washington Examiner on your nomination, by Ron Arnold, titled, ‘Another Big Green power player moved up in Obama’s Washington.’”

The Examiner op-ed described in detail Suh's lengthy record of opposition to resource development.

“But even after you joined the Interior Department, you stated to the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s 25th anniversary, that ‘I look forward to working with you, my colleagues ... ’”

Barrasso waved an arm, interrupting himself to tell Suh, “You’re not there anymore, you’re at the Interior Department, yet you’re still saying that ‘I look forward to working with you, my colleagues, mentors and friends, to utilize the skills and talents of the EGA community to advance a more resilient world and a resilient movement.

“So my question to you,” said Barrasso, “is how can you expect the members of this committee to suddenly expect you to change your views if you’re confirmed?”

In the time-honored confirmation hearing style known as “transparent impenetrability,” Suh said, “perhaps I can take this opportunity to clarify my views,” then explained that her foundation grants were not focused on opposing the needs of local communities, but were “enabling a broader suite of voices to be heard in the conservation movement, voices of hunters and anglers, of communities of color, of native people.”

Her grants were aimed at “balancing conservation opportunities with the needs, aspirations, and desires of local communities,” she said.

It’s not clear what question Suh thought she was answering, but the word “production” appeared nowhere in her testimony.

Barrasso’s time had expired, so he concluded to Suh: “This is not a position to which you’ve been nominated, in my opinion, to promote any movement. So I question whether this is really the right position for you, given your deeply held views.”

Now the issue is whether leading Democratic committee members - including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and West Virginia's Joe Manchin - will step up and question Suh's suitability for a job that is crucially important to America's economic growth prospects.

Ron Arnold, a Washington Examiner columnist, is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
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Ron Arnold

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The Washington Examiner