Democrats assail House Republicans’ pro-drilling bills

WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Tuesday kicked off a weeklong series of votes on measures designed to promote domestic energy development, beginning with a controversial bill that would accelerate the government’s permitting of oil and gas projects on federal lands.

Other measures in the pre-Thanksgiving lineup include a bill that would effectively bar the federal government from regulating hydraulic fracturing anywhere state rules already govern the process and legislation that would force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to make decisions on proposed natural gas pipelines within a year.

The White House has issued veto threats against all three GOP-backed measures, and none are expected to advance in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But all serve to put the House on record on key energy policy debates ahead of next year’s elections. The House votes planned for Wednesday on the hydraulic fracturing bill will be the first ever taken specifically on the well completion process credited with unlocking newly accessible oil and gas reserves nationwide.

On Tuesday, Democrats blasted the trio of measures, with Colorado’s Jared Polis casting them as “messaging bills that aren’t going anywhere.”

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Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House should be focused on more pressing matters, given the recent surge in domestic oil and gas production.

“There are more oil rigs in America today than the rest of the world combined, yet we’re talking about energy security,” Hoyer said. “We have it!”

But Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., insisted that energy security and economic growth are top national priorities that are served by the legislation.

“Probably the biggest issue facing America that we have heard from our constituents … is the need to have a growing economy and jobs,” Hastings said. “We have a chance to capture American energy and jobs with this legislation. It is certainly very, very important.”

More federal land

The bill debated Tuesday would require the Interior Department to make a quarter of all nominated federal acreage available for leasing each year. Critics called the 25 percent requirement “arbitrary,” but supporters said it is essential to ensure new, promising areas are made available for oil and gas development.

It also would require the government to sell new leases for research, development and demonstration of oil shale, primarily found in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, despite eroding industry interest in that unconventional crude.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also aims to speed up government permitting of oil and gas projects on public lands, by giving the Interior Department a maximum of 60 days to review exploratory drilling applications before they would be automatically deemed approved. Oil and gas industry representatives and their allies in Congress have complained that government permit reviews can stretch on for months and even years.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said the legislation is essential to “help get the government out of the way of progress.”

‘Completely irresponsible’

But Democrats said the measure would unfairly promote oil and gas development on federal lands above and beyond other activities, from grazing to recreational uses such as hunting and skiing.

“This bill’s central premise is to allow oil and gas companies to drill wherever and wherever they want to drill on public lands,” Polis said. “This bill is completely irresponsible and prioritizes the needs of the oil and gas industry over every other use of our public lands, including . . .hunting, fishing (and) skiing.”

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., said the measure would “tear down environmental protections and . . . restrict public participation in an attempt to expand oil and gas production.”

“These bills are nothing more than reckless giveaways to big oil and gas companies that put American families and the environment at risk,” Capps added.

Charging challengers

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, took aim at a provision in the bill that would charge would-be challengers $5,000 for the right to protest individual government decisions on oil and gas leases, drilling permits and rights of way. There currently is no charge to file such protests, and Jackson-Lee said the hefty new fee could thwart legitimate challenges by landowners, farmers and others worried about nearby drilling projects.

“A filing or documentation fee of this amount in many cases is prohibitive and will discourage injured parties from taking action to protect their rights,” Jackson-Lee said.

Hastings insisted that the “cost-recovery fee” would help compensate the Bureau of Land Management for responding to the drilling protests.

“These formal protests require a direct BLM response, using staff time, energy and resources to address what is simply, often, a delaying tactic,” Hastings said. “We have seen over and over and over what I would call frivolous action by people with lawsuits trying to slow down the process.”