Sweeping energy package reaches House floor

Source: Phil Taylor • E&E • Posted: Thursday, February 2, 2012

House Republicans yesterday advanced a trio of energy bills that would allow a vast expansion of oil and gas development in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and in the oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The bills, which passed the Natural Resources Committee on mostly party-line votes, now move to the House floor where they are expected to join Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act.”

Republicans said the bills will create more than a million American jobs, lower energy prices and raise new revenues to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. Democrats panned the package as an opportunistic giveaway to the oil and gas industry, arguing it would raise far less revenue than what is needed to build roads.

“This Republican jobs plan opens access to American energy resources, creates new jobs, brings certainty for small businesses that depend on affordable energy and generates new revenue that can be used to build roads and infrastructure projects to create even more American jobs,” said committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). “Unlocking our nation’s energy resources starts a wave of economic benefits and job creation that will positively touch nearly every aspect of our economy.”

On a 25-19 vote, the committee reported H.R. 3410, which would require the Interior Department to hold lease sales in the most oil-rich parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as a small portion of the eastern Gulf. Republicans added language yesterday that would include a lease in Alaska’s Bristol Bay and along California’s Santa Barbara coast, as long as drilling only occurs from existing platforms or from the shore.

The measure was supported by Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and was opposed by Reps. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) and David Rivera (R-Fla.).

On a 20 to 24 vote, the committee rejected a bid by Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) that would have allowed the voters of coastal states to opt out of potential leasing off their shores.

Republicans on the committee also rejected several Democratic amendments that would have blocked leasing in Bristol Bay, Georges Bank, offshore Virginia and in the eastern Gulf, in addition to forcing oil companies to renegotiate royalty-free leases that could cost the American taxpayer $9.5 billion over the next decade, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the committee’s public lands panel, said members of his party plan to continue throwing up procedural roadblocks to the Republican package.

“The more we can do in committee and the House floor to make it uncomfortable, the better opportunity we have of it not seeing the light of day in the Senate,” he said.

The committee earlier in the day voted 29-13 in favor of Hastings’ (H.R. 3407), which would require the Obama administration to lease hundreds of thousands of acres of the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain, which is believed to contain 10 billion barrels of oil (E&ENews PM, Feb. 1).

Republicans said the bill takes several steps to minimize surface disturbances related to petroleum development, protect wildlife and ensure oil from the refuge is not exported to foreign countries.

The measure allows no more than 10 percent of leased lands to be disturbed and allows the administration to impose seasonal closures in order to protect caribou, fish and other wildlife.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said the bill “has been well thought out” but complained that the committee had passed similar bills 11 times in the past only to be rebuffed by the Senate or the president. The Senate passed the measure once, and President Clinton vetoed it, he said.

“This committee reaffirmed what the majority of Alaskans already know — it’s time to harness those resources for the betterment of not only Alaska but the country as a whole,” Young said. “Congress does far too much talking and not enough doing when it comes to creating jobs and lowering energy costs.”

Grijalva said he believes the Senate and Obama administration will again frustrate Young’s dream.

“I thought the lament by Don Young, you know, ‘I’ve passed this 11 times and it’s gone nowhere,’ I think we’re going to see a full dozen this time,” he said.

On a 27-16 vote, the committee approved Rep. Doug Lamborn’s (R-Colo.) bill to mandate new oil shale leases in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah and lock in place George W. Bush administration royalty rates designed to encourage research and development (Greenwire, Feb. 1).

Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), whose district could see much of the development called for in the bill, voted in favor of the measure.

“This is a developing technology,” he said after the markup. “If we’re going to be drilling it, we want to make sure we’re doing it responsibly, that we’re taking into account, as my amendment pointed out, the local concerns that are going to be there, and if you’re familiar with my district there are a host of concerns.”

Democrats mostly opposed the bill, warning it would lift environmental laws and promote development of a risky energy source without fully understanding its impacts on air, water and local economies.

The committee defeated an amendment by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Water and Power subcommittee, that would have required the U.S. Geological Survey to study of impacts of oil shale on water quality and quantity for municipal and agricultural users.

Tipton said the Government Accountability Office is in the process of addressing her concerns.

“We have mitigation required in the state of Colorado,” he said. “In terms of water supply, under Colorado law, in order to use water you have to own water.”

But environmentalists urged a cautious approach to oil shale development, arguing potential environmental and economic impacts are yet to be explored. Many fear developing the resource could lead to another boom-and-bust cycle that could cripple local communities.

“Lamborn’s approach to oil shale is ‘Ready or not here it comes,’ and we are not ready,” said Kate Zimmerman, of the National Wildlife Federation. “There are still very important questions to be answered about the impacts of extracting oil shale on Colorado communities, on water quantity and quality and on fish and wildlife.”