WASHINGTON – The House has passed a measure streamlining the process for energy drilling on public lands while also requiring an increase in the number of lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
In a 228-192 vote mostly along party lines, the lower chamber approved the Federal Lands Jobs and Energy Security Act, sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), which deems any request to drill on federal lands to be approved if the secretary of the Department of Interior fails to act within 60 days of its receipt. The bill further requires the secretary to establish a federal permit streamlining project in each of the Bureau of Land Management field offices in an effort to further expedite the process.
Critics who might desire to file an objection to any oil and gas lease sales or permitting decisions would have to pay a $5,000 fee to file an appeal. Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst and deputy director of the Western Renewables Energy Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called that provision “a gross abuse of power, closing the courthouse door particularly on voices of minorities and other local community members trying to improve responsible management of public lands.”
The bill was the first among several to be considered this week supported by the House Republican majority aimed at increasing energy production and lowering the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. On Thursday, lawmakers are scheduled to debate and vote on legislation authored by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) intended to restrict the Interior Department’s planned regulation of hydraulic fracturing used to extract oil shale and natural gas.
Neither bill, opposed by environmentalists, is expected to survive beyond House passage. The Senate is not expected to consider it and the White House already has announced its intention to veto both measures.
In its message, the White House stated the Lamborn bill will “reverse administration oil and gas leasing reforms that have established orderly, open, efficient, and environmentally sound processes for energy development on public lands. Specifically, this bill would favor an arbitrary standard for leasing in open areas over leasing on the basis of greatest resource potential; limit the public’s opportunity to engage in decisions about the use of public lands; raise the potential for costly litigation, protests, and delays; strip the ability of the Department of the Interior to issue permits to drill based on important environmental reviews, clearances and tribal consultation; and curtail the use of public lands for other uses like hunting, fishing, and recreation.”
But Republicans argued the nation’s energy needs should surmount any opposition arguments.
“With millions of Americans still looking for work, growing debts and deficits and energy prices that are still far too high, the United States needs to implement an all-of-the-above energy plan to responsibly harness our nation’s energy resources on our federal lands,” said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “New energy production is one of the best ways to grow the economy and create new jobs to put people back to work.”
But Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) called the provisions “misguided, unnecessary, and environmentally harmful,” noting that the U.S. already is in the midst of “an almost unprecedented oil and gas boom” that has led to the nation’s crude oil production surpassing imports for the first time in 20 years. The International Energy Agency projected that the US will become the world’s top oil producer by 2015.
Hastings argued the production statistics cloud the true picture. The increased oil production, he said, is occurring on private and state lands – areas that don’t face as many federal regulations.
“Federal lands are being left behind,” he said. “However, this lack of production on federal lands is not for a lack of resources. We have tremendous potential for new onshore oil and natural gas production on federal lands, but the Obama administration is actively and purposely keeping these resources off limits. Leasing and permitting delays, regulatory hurdles, and ever-changing rules are a few of the reasons energy production on federal lands is in decline.”
Federal leases permitted under the Obama administration have been historically low, Hastings said. The average time to get a drilling permit approved on federal land is 307 days. By contrast, drillers can obtain a permit on public lands held by North Dakota in 10 days on average.
“It is no wonder that state lands are flourishing while federal lands are experiencing a decrease in energy production,” Hastings said. “That is unacceptable, and this bill today offers real solutions to unlock the shackles that have been placed on our federal lands.”
Holt answered that analysis is “flat-out wrong.” Production on federal and Indian lands in the West has actually “skyrocketed.”
“Onshore oil production from federal and Indian lands, just what we are talking about in this legislation, has gone up every year since the president has been in office,” Holt said. “It is now 35 percent higher than it was under President Bush. Yet this legislation would not just reduce environmental protections, it would gut them, it would remove them.”
Lamborn maintained that his bill “takes significant steps toward moving our country forward on a path to energy independence by streamlining government regulations and reducing government red tape that hinders onshore energy production.” Despite claims to the contrary, he said, “President Obama has waged a war on energy development.”
“Under the administration, a simple permit, which in my home state of Colorado on average takes 27 days to approve, takes nearly a year on federal land. And only minuscule areas of land have been leased for energy development despite significant interest in many more acres. In fact, the Obama administration has had the 4 lowest years of federal acres leased for energy production going back to 1988. The Obama administration has even taken the shocking and questionable step of canceling leases that have been legally bought and paid for.”
McEnaney noted that the bill also pressures the Interior Department to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration if Alaska supplies matching funds to carry out an exploration program. That move, he said, “undermines responsible management of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. It would toss out an existing National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Integrated Activity Plan, which was approved after 400,000 Americans, including Alaskans, sportsmen and scientists weighed in, and instead orders the use of an alternative allowing new drilling in the Reserve’s five designated ‘Special Areas,’ which are valued for wildlife habitat and native subsistence.”
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said the provision was requested by a number of Indian tribes and Alaska native corporations to streamline federal regulations and legal procedures that hinder exploration, development, and production of energy on their lands.
“There are 56 million acres of lands held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of Indians, 56 million,” Young said. “In Alaska, there are 44 million acres, a total land mass larger than the state of California. Many of these areas are in untapped energy resources. It is estimated that up to 10 percent or more of our nation’s energy is contained in Native lands.”
But outdated federal policies, Young said, “thwart the ability of tribes to use their lands for their benefit. Leases of Indian trust lands require federal review and approval, which arguably brings little or no value to the tribes involved.”