Republicans push drilling plan to pay for roads, bridges

House Republican leaders today unveiled a plan to expand oil and gas drilling in the nation’s lands and waters and use the royalties from those projects to pay for better bridges and roads.

Republicans hope to leverage the proposals to boost domestic energy production by tying them to the transportation authorization measure.

The legislation, which is expected to get a House debate and vote before the end of the year, also will give Republicans political talking points — and an alternative to the Obama administration’s jobs and infrastructure proposal — when they head home for a week-long Thanksgiving recess. The Senate rejected a key part of President Barack Obama’s jobs plan — a measure to spend $60 billion on infrastructure projects — earlier this month.

“The president says he wants more money for infrastructure. He also says he supports more American-made energy,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “So instead of spending more tax dollars on another short-term stimulus that in my opinion won’t work, our bill links job-creating energy production and infrastructure together.”

The so-called “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act” would open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refute to oil and gas drilling, while forcing the Interior Department to issue commercial leases for oil shale development on public lands. The energy and infrastructure package also includes a proposal by Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, to force the government to sell drilling leases in parts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, while also lifting a congressional ban on exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

That statutory ban bars drilling in the eastern Gulf through 2022, unless Congress changes the law. The Obama administration also is not planning on selling any new drilling rights in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans from 2012 through 2017, the next five-year leasing period for the outer continental shelf.

The Republican bill would reauthorize funding for federal transportation programs that are otherwise set to expire early next year. The GOP bill would extend them for another five years. By drawing on federal oil and gas royalties as a source of funding, the measure also would fill a gap between revenue collected from a federal gasoline tax for the national highway trust fund and the cost of nationwide transportation projects.

“It will help support long-term job growth, lower energy prices for families and small businesses and provide resources quickly for our highest-priority infrastructure projects,” Boehner said today.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the House Natural Resources Committee chairman who authored the Arctic refuge drilling proposal, said the entire package would do away with “numerous government roadblocks and barriers that stand in the way of U.S. energy development.”

Hastings cast the bill as a job-creator:

“These measures will not only create new energy jobs, but will generate significant federal revenue that can help pay for infrastructure improvements, thereby creating even more jobs.”

But Democratic lawmakers criticized Republicans for pushing controversial drilling proposals as a way of paying for transportation spending. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that has advanced an alternative highway bill, said the House GOP leaders’ approach threatens to capsize the legislation.

“We need to pay for the surface transportation bill in a way that is not contentious and does not threaten jobs,” Boxer said. “The proposal by Republican leadership would mire a very popular surface transportation bill in controversy, and it would directly threaten many thousands of fishing, tourism and recreation-related jobs.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., complained that the Republicans had no “real details on the level of investment or how they intend to pay for their bill.”

Although the bill could easily pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Boxer’s separate transportation bill is pending and where proposals to allow drilling in the Arctic refuge have been widely panned.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are an estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil harbored in the refuge’s coastal plain, which, at peak production, could supply the U.S. with up to 1.45 million barrels of oil daily.

Environmentalists say the potential oil gains from drilling in ANWR would be small and aren’t worth the risks of damage to wildlife and habitat.

Drilling advocates last prevailed in advancing an ANWR drilling plan through the Senate in 2005, when the chamber voted narrowly to add the proposal to an unrelated budget bill. But the drilling provisions ultimately were stripped out of the measure, after House Republican leaders encountered resistance from more than two dozen moderates in their party.

In recent years, ANWR drilling advocates have tried new tactics to make the idea more attractive. A recent gambit by Alaska’s senators — Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich — would have allowed oil companies to use horizontal drilling techniques to explore the refuge’s reserves as long as their footprint was not within the federally protected area.