updated 1/5/2005 11:30:02 AM ET 2005-01-05T16:30:02

Bush administration environmental officials and senior members of Congress are to speak to business leaders at an Arizona resort this week in what is being billed as a chance for executives to determine strategy over wine, meals and golf.

Sponsors call it a venue for increasing Western participation in federal energy and environmental policies. Frank O’Donnell, head of the environmental group Clean Air Watch, calls the gathering a forum for “polluter lobbyists to buy access to top federal and state officials.”

Interior Secretary Gale Norton is to be the keynote speaker at a dinner Thursday night sponsored by one of the world’s largest gold mining companies, Placer Dome Inc. of Vancouver, Canada.

Dan DuBray, an Interior Department spokesman, said the access that business people will gain to Norton is proper since “it is not uncommon for these business sectors to be linked to the issues that the Department of the Interior handles on a regular basis.”

The conference — sponsored by the Golden, Colo.-based Western Business Roundtable and BIPAC, a political action committee — is Wednesday through Friday at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in Phoenix.

Organizer was Cheney aide
The Western Business Roundtable, whose members are chiefly energy companies, is nonpartisan and has held similar conferences featuring federal officials, including members of the Clinton administration.

“We push for laws that promote a commonsense balance between economic growth and environmental conservation. That is our mantra,” said Jim Sims, the business roundtable’s executive director, who served in the White House in 2001 as the communications director for Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force.

“Any group that opposes that commonsense approach is, by definition, an extremist group, from the West’s perspective,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “We make no apologies for promoting the interests of the West’s economy.”

The meeting also includes a charity golf tournament to benefit the group, “Engineers Without Borders,” and a “Wild West Saloon Night” to benefit the Colorado School of Mines.

Other speakers at the retreat include Reps. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, respectively chairmen of the House Resources Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Idaho Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and former Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a longtime Texas Democrat unseated in the November election, also will speak to the group.

Both James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and a senior Environmental Protection Agency official are scheduled to take part by videoconference in a talk about federal air pollution regulation.

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