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House Republicans Push Bills to Promote Oil and Gas

Oct. 12, 2017, 8:12 PM

Republicans in the House are lining up more oil and gas legislation, including a bill on offshore drilling, and a rewrite of the law on national monuments, all with solid opposition from Democrats.

The survival of some of the measures may hinge on whether they can be added to must-pass legislation such as an omnibus appropriations bill or tagged onto budget measures needing only simple majority votes in the Senate for passage.

Two draft bills under discussion in the House Natural Resources Committee would encourage a broadening and acceleration of offshore oil and gas drilling and a shift of more authority to states for the permitting of onshore drilling on federal lands. Spokesmen for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Democrats suggested there would be no support among Democrats for either one.

Another bill would establish restrictions and public input requirements for presidential use of the Antiquities Act to create national monuments.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is lining the bills up for action by the full House. The first step is to go beyond the discussion-draft stage by introducing formal versions, which Bishop hopes to do within a month, committee spokeswoman Molly Block said.

Looking for Offshore Energy

Bishop’s committee Oct. 11 debated a discussion draft, the Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore Act, that would establish a sharing of government revenues with Southeastern coastal states and Alaska from offshore oil and gas development. It also would allow the Interior secretary to add lease sales in areas excluded from the existing five-year leasing plan.

“Lease sales would be entirely at the discretion of the secretary, who would be free to ignore the five-year plan altogether,” Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), said. “This would never be acceptable to the people of California and many other states.”

The bill also would limit a president’s ability to put areas off limits to leasing and block use of the Obama administration’s Arctic Rule, which added extra layers of regulatory protections for the difficult operating environment amid the icebergs and short drilling season off the Arctic coasts of Alaska.

Democrats have been defending the Arctic Rule since it was published in July 2016. The rigors of the Arctic environment, where an oil leak beneath sea ice might be unreachable for months, require extra protections, the Democrats have said.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) suggested the revenue sharing could boost support for Atlantic offshore drilling, where many people worry about the risks to the environment and tourism. A South Carolina Republican state senator from a coastal district, Stephen Goldfinch, testified that new revenues especially would be appreciated in South Carolina towns like Conway and Andrews, where the poverty rate is 50 percent.

But Goldfinch avoided endorsing or opposing the bill and said his constituents seemed evenly divided on the idea of offshore drilling.

Eric Milito, the director of Upstream and Industry Operations for the American Petroleum Institute, expressed support for the bill during the hearing, but his industry association did not offer any opinion on whether it could get through Congress. The National Ocean Industries Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Bigger State Roles in Onshore

The House Natural Resources Committee will debate a discussion draft focused on onshore oil and gas Oct. 13. That draft bill, Opportunities for the Nation and States to Harness Onshore Resources Act, would allow states to take over permitting and permit enforcement for oil and gas on federal lands.

The legislation also would eliminate the need for a Bureau of Land Management permit or National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on non-federal land where the federal government has an ownership stake in the subsurface mineral rights. It also would bar federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing where states regulate fracking, and it would bar federal regulation of fracking on tribal lands without a tribe’s consent.

Shifting permitting to states might void the application of NEPA and the Endangered Species Act, which impose requirements on federal rather than state agencies. Such a maneuver would have trouble finding support among House or Senate Democrats.

If either bill were to go to the Senate as stand-alone legislation it would have an uncertain future. A cloture vote to end debate would require 60 votes. Republicans have 52 senators, and not all of them are sure to support the bills.

Both bills can contribute to federal revenues, however, making it possible for them to be included in budget reconciliation legislation requiring only a simple majority. The House passed a fiscal year 2018 budget resolution Oct. 5 that reserved for the House Natural Resources Committee a provision for finding $5 billion in savings. Oil and gas leasing revenues are possible candidates for such savings.

Antiquities Act Rewrite

The Natural Resources Committee also has been an arena for argument over the Antiquities Act, used by presidents to declare national monuments, as President Barack Obama did in December with the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

The National Monument Creation and Protection Act (H.R. 3990), written to heavily amend the antiquities law, was approved by the committee Oct. 11 on a 23-17 vote. No Democrat supported the bill.

Proposed by Bishop, the measure would add stricter language in the act by specifying its purpose is to protect an “object or objects of antiquity.” The existing act uses somewhat looser language, which the last three presidents before Donald Trump have used to protect millions of acres of onshore or offshore terrain.

The bill also would require more public engagement, including county and state approvals for monuments of 10,000 acres or more. Environmental activists have opposed such ideas as state legislative approval, saying it would prevent new monuments from being created.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com